Lib Dem leader urges Theresa May to stand up to hardline Brexiters in her own party
A “potentially catastrophic” no-deal Brexit is becoming ever more possible, Vince Cable has warned, saying that if this happened it would be an unprecedented policy disaster.
As the Liberal Democrats prepare to fight the Lewisham East byelection on Thursday on a platform of guaranteeing a referendum on any eventual deal, the party leader said the longer the government appeared deadlocked over Brexit, the greater the risk the UK would leave the EU without a deal.
“I’d always assumed that the government would more or less get something, a divorce settlement plus a vague commitment to sort things out – Brexit in name but probably not in fact,” Cable told the Guardian during a visit to the constituency.
“But as time passes and they can’t reconcile their internal differences, you begin to think that not getting any kind of deal at all is back on the agenda. We’d rather discounted it, but it’s a real possibility again.”
Cable, who was among those who sent out warnings before the 2008 financial crash, said leaving the EU without a deal would be “potentially catastrophic”. Asked if he could think of a policy disaster of similar magnitude he said: “Not really. There have been disastrous errors on policy – Iraq, Suez – but nothing like this.”
He urged Theresa May to stand up to hardline Brexiters, such as the European Research Group of Tory MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg.
“I can’t understand why she won’t take on the hard right of the party. The chances of them actually dislodging her are not high,” he said.
“You’d have thought she’d say, we’ve reached the limit of what we can do, and I’m going to go ahead in the customs union/single market framework, and you guys will have to put up with it. And she would have the support of the rest of parliament and would carry the country.”
Cable has had mixed success as the Lib Dem leader since regaining his Twickenham seat at the 2017 election, but the party was buoyed by better-than-anticipated results in May’s local elections. It is hoping for another boost from the Lewisham East vote, which was prompted by Heidi Alexander’s decision to resign from the safe Labour seat for a role with London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan.
Cable said he accepted it was unlikely the party would win the seat, where it took 4.4% of the vote in 2017.
“We’re looking for a substantial improvement in our vote share – we’d certainly expect to overtake the Tories,” he said, sitting alongside the party’s candidate, the charity consultant Lucy Salek, in a cafe in the south-east London constituency.
“There is a very, very outside possibility of winning, but given the size of the margin it will be difficult to do that.”
Salek argued that with Labour complacent and the Conservatives largely absent there was scope for the Lib Dems to profit from concerns about Brexit in the heavily pro-remain constituency, where the issue has been mentioned “over and over again” on doorsteps.
Cable said the party’s policy of calling for a public vote on a final Brexit deal was proving popular.
“Brexit wasn’t very clearly defined at the time, in what it entailed,” he said. “That’s all the more reason for having a vote on the outcome, and that’s beginning to have a certain amount of resonance with voters.”
One notable element of the byelection is the decision of the Labour candidate, Janet Daby, to support continued UK membership of the single market and customs union, contrary to party policy.
While the Lib Dems question whether Daby has reined in her stance on Brexit under pressure from her party hierarchy, Cable said Labour divisionsbefore key votes on the EU withdrawal bill this week pointed to tensions reminiscent of the era when the Social Democratic party split away from Labour.
Asked whether another centrist party could emerge, he said: “It could happen. Obviously, the SDP history, at least as it’s retold, is given as a warning about not repeating history. But I think some Labour MPs are being put in an impossible situation. We’ll see that when the votes come.”