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'I'm ready for heavy lifting': Sir Vince Cable on PM’s ‘pig’s ear’ Brexit and saying yes to a knighthood

March 11, 2018 3:50 PM
By JOE MURPHY AND NICHOLAS CECIL in The Evening Standard

Vince Cable"I could have finished up in ermine," mused Sir Vince Cable when asked how he feels about the prefix that graces his name. Instead of a seat in the House of Lords, he chose a knighthood after the Tories claimed his scalp in a shock victory in Twickenham in the 2015 election. "I thought my political career had ended and therefore it was quite a nice thing to do for the family and myself," he revealed. "But had I known I was coming back, I would probably have stayed as Vince."

It's an honour he seems eager to play down after wrestling his scalp back (with a thumping 10,000 majority) in the 2017 Tory omnishambles. The "Sir" never appears on election leaflets. Does he actually use the honorific? "Not very much," he admitted.

He clearly relishes being back at the House of Commons. A wiry and fit 74-year-old, Sir Vince describes the period in which he wrote a novel, joined a company and entered the British National Dance Championships as "my two years in exile". He added: "I guess I have politics in the blood."

Hanging on the walls of his office overlooking Big Ben are political cartoons featuring the Liberal Democrat leader and his Westminster rivals. Half-hidden behind his desk is a neatly rolled exercise mat. "I've had some back trouble since doing the lifts for Strictly," he explained.

But what about the intellectual heavy lifting so desperately needed to revive the depleted Lib Dems? Last year, grandee Paddy Ashdown berated the party for not "thinking big" under Tim Farron. Have things changed? "Yes, it is happening," claimed the new leader.

It is his cue to run through a list of policies being debated at this weekend's spring conference in Southport: a hypothecated health and social care tax; new tests and inspection rules for schools; higher spending on police, funded by the reversal of a Tory business tax cut. The biggest complaint on the doorstep, he says, has morphed in two years from school funding to crime. Leafy Twickenham, he adds, is a hotspot for the theft of mopeds used in muggings in central London.

"We have had a more than doubling of our membership, most of it young," he said. "A lot of those are 'Brexit refugees' who have come from other parties, or no parties."

The 2017 Sir Vince is better groomed than the grizzled old business secretary version: slimmer and neater, with hair and eyebrows brought under control by the trimmer. The blue eyes still twinkle.

But his party remains handicapped by the most controversial decision he helped take in coalition: the introduction of tuition fees for students. Making and breaking a pledge to do no such thing was "a bad mistake", he reflects, but he claims the hostility is dying away. "We get good vibes wherever we go," he said.

Nowadays the party is attacking the rate of interest on student loans - six per cent, although it is set under a coalition formula - and campaigning for the return of maintenance grants.

"I don't think it's a question of being forgiven," said Sir Vince, who insists the system is proving better for underprivileged teenagers. "Most students, who were probably about 11 at the time, now think about things in a different way. Some of them like the present system, some of them don't." Polls suggest the Lib Dems are on a nine per cent, down from 13 per cent a year ago. Sir Vince retorts that they are up on their 7.5 per cent vote share at the general election.

"We are going forwards, the question is how fast," he said. Brexit might provide their way back. "I think the Government is making a terrible pig's ear of it. It's proving to be far more complicated, far more difficult than people were led to believe. Theresa May's biggest mistake was probably hubris, making these commitments to red lines on the single market and the customs union that she is now having to slither out of." His first test will be the local elections on May 3, when the party will bring out videos and social media campaign material in 21 European languages in a bid to harness the votes of a million EU citizens in Britain. Lib Dem campaigners have already contacted 300,000 more than three times each, he revealed. "Our main appeal is to British voters but the European nationals are people having things done to them. They didn't have a vote in the referendum, they didn't have a vote in the general election, but they do have a vote in local elections."

He remains committed to stopping Brexit altogether. "I don't think the soft Brexit is obtainable any more," he said. "Maybe with good organisation and a bit more courage from the Tory backbenches they will stop her leaving the customs union... but that's not enough in itself to get to a soft Brexit." He branded Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn "a fairly hardline Brexiteer" who had held open the door for the UK exit and opposed a second referendum.

Is he putting too many Lib Dem eggs in a pro-EU campaign? "Brexit is the big issue of the day, it's going to affect our country for generations to come," he replied. "It's particularly important for London."

When his party selects a candidate for Mayor of London he says: "I would like us to have an ethnic minority candidate. Not just because of London, Sadiq and so on... we are making a big push on diversity. Relatively speaking we are a very white party, often because a lack of effort to diversify."

Doggedly, Sir Vince points out that the Lib Dems have been at rock bottom before. When he first stood in Twickenham in 1990, Margaret Thatcher channelled Monty Python by mocking a party that had "ceased to be".

"It has been a rollercoaster existence," said Sir Vince, a knight who has no intention of retiring from the fray.