Vince Cable: I was asked to lead a new pro-Remain party. Here’s why I said no

The 'pop-up' anti-Brexit parties have little real interest in democratic politics in the UK. Voters should beware.

Recently, we’ve seen an explosion of announcements of new parties being formed. Most are not very serious: vanity projects, spoofs or hopeless lost causes. These new parties offer politics without politicians. 

They include Jeremy Cliffe’s very-short-lived Radicals (which has a long wish list of mostly mainstream suggestions); the Veterans and People’s Party (promising a return of the death penalty); Jolyon Maugham’s ‘Spring the Party’ movement (strongly pro-Remain); Something New, an internet based party; and The Democrats, fronted by former David Davis adviser James Chapman.

Others appear to have the backing of wealthy businessmen: Richard Breen’s party Renew (Mr Breen being a successful residential property investor) and a group apparently in formation led by a former Labour donor, Simon Franks.

So far, no politician of any stature, or even without stature, has endorsed or joined them.  Money, marketing, a new name and the self-belief of the founders appear to be the common ingredients.

The absence of politicians is revealing. I was asked to consider leading one of these new parties and when I pointed out that I already led a party, with deeper roots and rather better prospects, the answer I got was ‘well, why don’t you change the brand and we will get behind you’. 

Others, I believe, have been approached – Tony Blair, Paddy Ashdown, Nick Clegg – and plausible names banded about include David Miliband and George Osborne.  None, to my knowledge, has been tempted.

The conversations, I gather, follow a predictable pattern. Flattery: the new Messiah is capable of leading the country out of its present mess if their talents can be harnessed to a new vehicle with a new name and, in some cases, the tycoon’s millions.

Then the politician asks some obvious questions about local organisation, compliance requirements and the handicaps of Britain’s first-past-the-post system and eyes glaze over. Unnecessary detail. If you politicians aren’t interested, we will do it on our own. The two epithets I commonly hear to describe the new party sponsors are naivety and arrogance.

But this phenomenon can’t be ignored. Why is this happening, and happening now? It is partly a reaction to Brexit. Several of the sponsors are angry Remainers who feel let down by the two main parties that allowed Brexit to happen.

They also have a nostalgia for the days of Blair and Cameron whom they backed and, who in turn, gave them a hearing. Now they have a Labour leader who has no need of them, who despises them, and a Tory Prime Minister who is politically weak and has no empathy for, or understanding of, business.

They look at the extreme political volatility of the Western World and the opportunities that have appeared. Trump has opened up the beguiling possibility that anyone who does deals in the property market and has limitless self-confidence and wealth can get to run a country.

There are some successful models of tycoon-led politics. Aaron Banks is one. UKIP may have achieved very little as a conventional party – one maverick MP; a small number of rather ineffectual councillors; and some exotic MEPs.

But, allied to Nigel Farage’s undoubted talent as a communicator, banks’ money and clever use of communications technology turned British politics on its head through a referendum.

Brexit was, however, also built on decades of campaigning by anti-EU zealots.  The new tycoon parties, by contrast, are impatient: they want instant results.

Moreover, their political objectives appear to be the opposite of UKIP’s.  In which case, they should get behind my party. My conversations with them suggested they have little real interest in democratic politics in the UK: the hard slog of campaigning; the vicissitudes of elections; the formidable barriers to entry for new parties.

Although they use the language of ‘centrist’ politics it is the kind of ideology-free, technocratic, authoritarian centrism that would be more at home in, say, Singapore. I think that is why the main advice they give to me is to drop the world Liberal from Liberal Democrat – or, better, both words.  Voters beware.

Vince Cable is Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today. 

14 Responses to “Vince Cable: I was asked to lead a new pro-Remain party. Here’s why I said no”

  1. John Woods

    Anything that detracts from the fight to defeat Brexit is to be deplored. Brexit is the equivelent of the legislation to ban alcohol in the US between 1922 and 1932 (when it was repealed). Not only did the banning of alcohol enable the development of organized crime, which is still with them, it resulted in widespread abuse of the law. No one knows the unintended consequences of Brexit but they will happen and may devastate British society every bit as much as organized crime does in the US.

  2. John Carlisle

    Until the Lib Dems fight for the NHS they so badly let down any cause they espouse will not rouse more than faint interest with a dash of cynicism.

  3. euperspectives

    Many of us completely understand your point about the dull details of everyday political life – campaigning, committees, local meetings etc. etc. Forming a political party is much harder than most imagine and requires genuine commitment and determination – and lets face it money. One thing you forgot to mention though is Emmanuel Macron. He has enough charisma, energy and self-belief to turn a one man phenomenon into a Presidential success story complete with an overwhelming majority in the legislature. He did that in under 12 months. Macron understood where modern politics is going, seized the opportunity and ran a victory lap. With our own country in such turmoil I find it baffling that not a single British politician is following a similar route. A new party, with an experienced politician leading the helm could be in 10 Downing Street potentially by the end of next year – but all our politicians appear terrified of the mythical “will of the people”. Like little rabbits frozen in the head-lights of a Kremlin backed strategy none of them are seizing the opportunity to grab the centre ground and lead the country with confidence away from Brexit and fundamentalism.

  4. Stephen DuBois

    The greatest danger to democracy in this country is that the Tories rely on the principle of divide and conquer to rule, made easier by the FPTP system. They have been in power for 60% of the time since 1922 and the disastrous results are apparent.

    Their current headlong race towards the brexit cliff edge is a result of their desperate struggle to stop their party from splitting in two and losing power. New centrist parties will split the anti-Tory vote further. In the GE(2017), if Labour had adopted progressive alliance and promoted tactical voting, there could have been an coalition government with an agenda to re-examine and re-run the fraudulent EURef2(2016) and revoke Article 50.

    People with a centrist agenda need to back a mainstream party that reflects their politics, the LibDems. It is also why ALL mainstream parties should coalesce into a united front to defeat Toryism and other right-wing parties.

  5. Ludovic Tolhurst-Cleaver

    @John Carlisle: The Lib Dems are currently the only party with a sensible and workable plan to save the NHS by introducing a 1% NHS additional income tax.

    We are also calling for a cross-party Royal Commission to come up with new and robust funding models for the future so that we can permanently put the NHS on a sustainable footing.

    Labour mortgaged the NHS to stay in power between 1997 and 2010 via the madness of PFI. The current Tory cabinet is so anti-NHS they’ve been upbraided by former Tory PM Sir John Major for it. The Lib Dems are the only party that can fix the NHS.

  6. Mike Turner

    I am so very sick of the blatherings of the likes of John Carlisle. The Lib Dems were MINORITY partners on a coalition. They made mistakes – mainly by believing the Tories could actually spell integrity, let alone know what it means – but it was NOT the LibDems that let down the NHS; the students and any other group that believes that miracles could be achieved by a minority. It was the Tories, the majority party, that broke its promises over the NHS and is still doing so. It was Labour that introduced and increased tuition fees when they said they wouldn`t and t6he Tories who pushed it further. And so on & so on.

  7. Nigel Legg

    Umm, John, a central policy of the Lib Dems has been and will continue to be the commitment to add a penny to income tax in order to properly fund the NHS. I would say that this is fighting for the NHS, wouldn’t you?

  8. Jack Buxton

    @John Carlisle Can you tell me specifically which parts of the Lib Dem 2015 and 2017 manifestoes related to the NHS fell short of fighting for it? I don’t want a general answer I want a specific, policy-based, answer.

  9. Gordon Eve-Tatham

    I agree with Vince Cable to form a new party would simply dilute the anti-Brexit cause and not survive in the future. The most important thing now is to stop Brexit then worry about everything else. The Lib Dems. and the Greens are openly anti-Brexit but within both Labour and Tory Parties there are members who do not want Brexit either. Brexit is progressing, it will quite likely self destruct before too long though not before more damage has been done. Groups like Open Britain and the European Movement need to work together with the common aim of winning round the Leavers who have since changed their minds or release how they have been duped. Recently Government behaviour shows contempt for parliament and a refusal to adit that Brexit may be wrong for the country.

  10. Robin Ashby

    Real NHS spending rose by about 8% during the Coalition years. In last year of Labour Govt it didn’t rise at all

  11. Alex Macfie

    @euperspectives: Macron probably wouldn’t succeed in the UK. The very different political system in France compared to the UK is key to how someone like Macron can form a new political party and get to a high position of power in less than a year. France has a presidential system, with Parliamentary elections held soon after the presidential election. This means that Macron could focus on the Presidential contest, with its simple rule that the candidate with the most votes wins (no electoral college as in the US), and then worry about assembling a Parliamentary majority after winning the Presidency. Political parties are therefore often principally vehicles for big-name politicians. In the

  12. Alex Macfie

    @euperspectives: Macron probably wouldn’t succeed in the UK. The very different political system in France compared to the UK is key to how someone like Macron can form a new political party and get to a high position of power in less than a year. France has a presidential system, with Parliamentary elections held soon after the presidential election. This means that Macron could focus on the Presidential contest, with its simple rule that the candidate with the most votes wins (no electoral college as in the US), and then worry about assembling a Parliamentary majority after winning the Presidency. Political parties are therefore often principally vehicles for big-name politicians, and rarely outlast them very long. The UK with its entrenched party system and need to fight elections seat by seat does not easily allow for new parties. UKIP took over 20 years to become established.

  13. Martyn Wood-Bevan

    Please just accept that Macron is deeply unpopular in France and will be lucky to survive full term. Vince Cable could have chosen better figure-head to aspire to.

  14. Chris Read

    Some interesting comments above; some of the later ones answer earlier ones with what I would have said (especially in regards to the Lib Dem policy on the NHS). Its interesting the Vince has been accused above both of ignoring ‘The Macron effect’ and aspiring to be Macron – The first comment is the more accurate at least where this article is concerned; He doesn’t mention the French President.
    Emmanuel Macron was elected under a system whereby voters can vote again a week or so later, if their preferred candidate didn’t get enough support. Concentrate that into one ballot paper, and that’s the AV system that was rejected for the UK in an earlier referendum. Given that I was one of the 32% on that occasion a fair few ‘Remainers’ must have voted against.
    I do really wish that those Remainers who somehow ‘can’t forgive’ the Lib Dems for the coalition would take a long hard look at their reasons, because this seems to have become an article of faith in much the same way Brexit is for many Leave voters. May I just guide them with a few facts.
    1. Had there been no coalition then most likely there would have been another election in late 2010 or 2011, and then the chances are the Conservatives would have won an outright majority. Labour’s new leader would have been in post for a few months, and the Conservatives could have spun that the Lib Dems didn’t want power or responsibility.
    2. The truth about Student Fees is the Lib Dems had no mandate to insist on these being scrapped, and no numbers in parliament to make it happen. If we add together all parties who were in favour (Greens, SNP, PC) the total vote would have been < 30%. The young people unhappy with the Lib Dems for not implementing the policy would have better directed their anger at non Lib Dem voters. The policy that was implemented was publicised in the media as a 'tripling of fees' but the truth is more than half of students would have paid less.
    3. As a Lib Dem there were policies of the coalition I was unhappy with, not least letting Hunt meddle with the NHS – But no other party in history has been judged as harshly for not implementing all their policies – Including all those who had clear parliamentary majorities. This was in part because my party – Vince Cable's party – were a bit rubbish, and very naïve, in self publicity. But they were also hampered in that nearly all the media were either clearly against them or in the case of the BBC, bought into the national narrative this situation created. The media that brought us Brexit were also responsible for crushing the Lib Dems….. Whose side are you on?

    I don't mean with that final question that you should support the Lib Dems or be some kind of Murdoch/Dacre lackey. There are other valid positions – and I support Nick Clegg's comments in his recent book that out and out Labour supporters should join/stay and fight against Brexit in the party of their choice (ditto the Conservatives too)…. But just stop saying again and again that the Lib Dems are dead because of some mantra you still have in your head. They may yet be Remain's only hope

Leave a Reply