MPs will “kill off” any prospect of a no-deal Brexit in crucial House of Commons votes next week, the Liberal Democrat leader has predicted.
Sir Vince Cable said he believed there was now a “sufficient number” of members opposed to remove this as a prospect.
Leaving the European Union on March 29 without a formal deal in place would be “wickedly irresponsible”, he insisted, as he hit out at Theresa May for attempting to “blackmail” MPs into backing her.
And as well as making plain he believed a no-deal Brexit could be stopped, he said he was “optimistic” that there would be a second referendum.
Cable told the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference in Hamilton: “I personally don’t believe that no-deal Brexit is remotely likely, but it is absolutely scaring the wits out of people who have to trade across frontiers.”
But he also told activists: “The positive thing is it can be stopped, and I think there is now a route map as to how we deal with Brexit in the next few weeks and months.
“Next week the priority will be stopping this no-deal nonsense, taking it off the table, removing it, taking away the fear, letting people get on with their lives.
“And I think there is now a sufficient number, reinforced by the cabinet threat this morning, to make sure that we kill this. That is our first priority.”
After that, he said, the prospect of a People’s Vote on the terms of the Brexit deal was now “in sight” – although he warned supporters this could come in an “uncomfortable form”.
Speaking about a second referendum he told the conference: “We must keep fighting to the end. I think we will get it.
“It may come in an uncomfortable form, let’s be prepared for that. We may find that at the very last minute the Government turns around and says ‘OK, you approve my deal subject to a people’s vote’. That may be the way it happens.
“That’s something we have to do and we have to give the public the opportunity to vote on this issue and we will be out there campaigning to keep our membership of the European Union.”
He added: “That’s the way forward. I’m optimistic in the next few weeks we will resolve this issue.”
With Brexit looming, and with several Labour and Tory MPs having quit their parties to set up Westminster’s new Independent Group, Sir Vince said British politics had been “shaken to the foundations” over recent weeks and months.
And he said this “very turbulent” period could provide a “big opportunity”.
In Scotland he said the party was “rebuilding support”, insisting that increasing the number of Lib Dem MPs from north of the border from four to seven was a “realistic prospect”.
And while he warned against an early general election, he said the party was prepared to fight one if necessary.
Cable said: “The country needs an early election like a hole in the head. It would just add to the turbulence, the instability, the ill will which is all around us.
“But if you were Theresa May and you had a bit more oomph and you hadn’t made a complete mess of the last one, there would be strong temptation to have an early general election.
“The Labour Party are all over the place, you’ve got a new group of independent members who haven’t yet built up defences for their seats, you could kill them off.
“It must be very tempting for her and her people to think in these terms.
“So I think we have to be ready, we are ready.”