Sir Vince Cable on saving the Lib Dems, staying fit and, why he missed a crucial Brexit vote

Sir Vince Cable.

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Sir Vince Cable.
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Dan Kitwood/Getty

  • Exclusive: Sir Vince Cable talks to Business Insider one year on from being elected leader of the Liberal Democrats.
  • The Liberal Democrats are preparing themselves for a “radical” shift in British politics, Cable said.
  • The party is being helped by a former advisor to Justin Trudeau who worked on Emmanuel Macron’s campaign.
  • Cable dismissed suggestions he is planning to hand over to a successor soon.
  • The Lib Dem leader was disappointed about missing a key Brexit vote but said: “there’s a slight danger of making a mountain out of a molehill.”

LONDON – On the walls of Sir Vince Cable’s Westminster office are cartoons of him sketched by people throughout his long and colourful political career.

In one of the more flattering portraits, Cable is imagined as a dog biting the leg a border guard, who happens to be former prime minister David Cameron, in recognition of his lifelong support for pro-immigration policies.

In a less flattering scene, he is manning a vegetable stall, asking “how much do you earn?” to a student inquiring about the price of a banana, in reference to the Liberal Democrats’ infamous broken promise on student fees.

The MP for Twickenham talked us through each cartoon before sitting down for an exclusive interview to mark the one year anniversary of his leadership of the Liberal Democrats

Cable, 75, has spent more than 50 years in politics in one role or another. One of his first jobs was an advisor to the Kenyan government in the 1960s. 44 years later, he was business secretary in Cameron’s Coalition government.

Today he is leader of the Liberal Democrats, having succeeded Tim Farron after last year’s general election.

Even with the stress of one of Britain’s most turbulent political eras, in which what feels like a year’s worth of news takes place in the space of 24 hours, Cable is showing no signs of slowing down.

Each week, he enjoys a dance lesson, at least two visits to the gym, and cycles most days. He is known to his team as “guns” and “built Cable” for his commitment to fitness.

“Half an hour on your bike can help you clear your head. You do need these releases,” he said.

He is an avid football fan and takes his grandson to watch Arsenal and Fulham. “Match Of The Day is unmissable,” he said. “One of my heroes, Anthony Crosland, who I worked for once upon a time, had a golden rule as foreign secretary, which was when he was sent on foreign trips, Match Of The Day had to be protected. I’m like that.”

He also reads novels, and is currently working on his next book.

The vast majority of his time, though, is spent working out how to make the Liberal Democrats a party of government, at a time when he believes the Conservatives and Labour “are struggling to survive.”

“I can’t see the present system can be kept going”

A year on from Cable’s coronation as party leader, polls suggest the Liberal Democrats are still waiting for a significant increase in support. However, Cable pointed to gains at the recent local elections, and a record membership which is continuing to grow. “I’m pretty optimistic. I think the tide is at long last moving in our favour,” he said.

He insists that the “legacy of the Coalition and the toxicity associated with that,” is on the wane for the party.

“From our own point of view, we’ve had our historical issues with young people and students, which I think have been largely overcome. Surveys show that most people who are considering voting for us are young people who don’t have ideological baggage.”

The party is keen to move on from its time in government and Cable insists they are now an “ideas factory,” and are talking to think tanks like the IPPR and Resolution Foundation about policies for addressing issues he believes led millions of people to vote for Brexit, like regional inequality.

He also has recently enlisted the help of Tom Pitfield, a political strategist who worked on the campaigns of Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, in modernising the party and attracting higher levels of support.

Vince Cable

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Reuters

Cable told BI he was preparing the Liberal Democrats for a “radical” shift in the British political landscape.

“There are large numbers of Labour MPs and quite a lot of Tories who are just bitterly alienated by their own people. I can’t see the present system can be kept going. In the New Year, new groups may emerge.

“I’m not sure who or how they’ll be configured,” he said.

“But I predict it is going to happen and my instincts are that if they’re aligned with us on basic values, we can work with them. And that’s what I am campaigning for.”

“As long as I’m fit and able to do the job, I’m doing it”

Cable sat down with BI on a volatile week for his own leadership. On Monday, a mix-up meant Cable failed to attend what was a crucial Commons vote on key Brexit legislation, which May’s government won by just a handful of votes.

For the leader of the self-styled anti-Brexit party to miss a key vote on Brexit was not a good look for Cable, especially when the government won by such a small margin. Cable said that while party supporters had every right to be disappointed, he believed the controversy had been overblown.

“I think there’s a slight danger of making a mountain out of a molehill,” he told BI.

“The problem is everybody in Parliament, leaders, in particular, are struggling to balance the need to be in several different places at once. When you have important commitments, you’re trying to balance them against the importance of certain votes. We have an excellent whip which does a risk assessment on the basis of what is likely to happen in votes. We judged on Monday that the votes were not likely to be crucial because the Conservatives were unlikely to rebel, so I was freed to get on with quite an important political meeting.”

When pushed on what the important meeting was, Cable refused to say.

Business Secretary Vince Cable

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Business Secretary Vince Cable
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REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

So does Cable plan to hand over the leadership to a successor any time soon? “As long as I’m fit and able to do the job, I’m doing it,” he said. He doesn’t expect a general election in the foreseeable future, despite the instability of May’s government, but believes a second Brexit referendum is likelier than ever.

“What’s happened in the last couple of weeks is the chances of a no deal and crashing out have risen substantially and the chances of a People’s Vote have risen substantially.”

The current state of Brexit “is a terrible mess,” he added. “I’m trying to be fair-minded. But it is a mess.”

He added: What I thought was the most likely outcome – a not terribly good but basic deal with some features of an association agreement – is now for the birds.”

“The hardliners in [May’s] party are becoming more confident. They effectively destroyed the Brexit Chequers agreement. Now we’re drifting to potential disaster. Whether we call it a no deal or a bad deal, it doesn’t look good.”

Despite the relentless chaos of Westminster politics, Cable has no plans to take it this easy summer.

“Well, I’m not going anywhere exotic,” he said.

“I’m doing what they call a staycation. Reading books and going on walks. But I’ll be doing preparation for the autumn conference – speeches, thinking about reforms, etc. Some time off, but not two weeks lying on a beach.”