James Millar: Wither Vince Cable in the Brexit maelstrom?

Written by James Millar on 18 December 2018 in Opinion

Lib Dems are looking forward to 2019 because they'll be rid of Vince

And lo Sir Vince Cable rose at Prime Minister’s Questions, an enfeebled and incompetent Prime Minister before him and… no zinger was forthcoming.

If Jeremy Corbyn stands accused of missing open goals at PMQs the Lib Dem leader just stumbles over the ball these days. And yet once he was deadly.

The man who made his name when he memorably downed Gordon Brown by suggesting that the then PM had gone from ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ has himself gone from Cassandra to Nosferatu. Once he was lauded for his political and economic nous and his uncanny ability to predict that the nation was about to go bust. Now he’s the politically undead, a ghostly presence in Westminster who is neither here nor there.

That’s not just because his Lib Dems are living in much reduced circumstances compared to their noughties heyday. It’s because of his own failings.

Gordon Brown was vulnerable because he’d lusted after the top job for years, plotted and schemed to get there but when he finally got the gig he proved utterly unsuited to it. Remind you of anyone?

Cable spent years undermining and even unseating Lib Dem leaders before the party, for want of any better ideas, agreed he could have a go last year. Since then he’s been nothing shy of hopeless. As one senior Lib Dem put it to me: “There’s a bit of Ming about him.” In Scotland that would mean he was beginning to stink, in Lib Dem speak it means he’s wise and insightful but hopeless at leading. Both senses are true.

He is leader of the Lib Dems in name only because he doesn’t lead many and he doesn’t lead much.

His troops need little persuasion to hold forth on his shortcomings with vanity a recurring theme, one losing Lib Dem recalled Cable joining him on the stump only to spend the day talking about himself and doing very little to raise the candidate’s profile.

It didn’t need to be like this.

Brexit provided a readymade route back to relevance. The Lib Dems painted themselves as the only party to oppose Brexit. Nobody cared. With Vince at the helm they’ve even managed to lose their claim to be the only party united on Europe after Eastbourne MP Stephen Lloyd quit the whip last week to vote for Theresa May’s deal (and as if to hammer home the ineptitude in the Lib Dems at the moment the vote didn’t happen meaning Lloyd is unnecessarily independent through Christmas until the vote does take place next month.)

It may speak to the wider disruption Brexit has wrought to the party political system but resistance to the UK leaving the EU has largely come via non-party organisations. The sheer irrelevance of the Lib Dems was strikingly illustrated at the huge anti-Brexit march in October that saw protestors mainly focussed on persuading Jeremy Corbyn to back their call for a second referendum. Because his support would actually make a difference.

In an era in which two party politics made an unlikely comeback the third party needs to be nimble, imaginative and brave to be heard in the debate. None of these words describes Vince - for him being known by his first name only is not a sign that he’s a national treasure but that he is not now serious enough to be referred to by his surname - who has been lethargic, uninspiring and invisible. The Lib Dems must shout to be heard. Their leader seems to have run out of puff.

Remarkably it was Vince himself who drove the final stake through the heart of his own tenure when, after only a year in charge, he announced he was off but not until after Brexit and crucially not until he’d put in place measures to open up the race to replace him to folk who aren’t even party members. This could be seen as an attempt to ape the Labour leadership rules that worked so well for that party that they delivered Jeremy Corbyn to the top job accompanied by years of internal turmoil. Or it could speak to a lack of candidates to take over.

Layla Moran has been talked up but has ruled herself out. Ed Davey is apparently already on manoeuvres. Jo Swinson remains favourite but if a party in need of energy thinks the best idea is to turn to the parent of a six-month-old baby it suggests the whole lot of them are collectively suffering from baby brain.

The only non-MP in the frame is Gina Miller, the doughty anti-Brexit campaigner, but she’s said she’s not interested.

Willie Rennie’s name perks up most in the party but there is no realistic way that the party’s leader in Scotland, famed for his campaigning zeal and memorable photo ops, could take over. Westminster would wrongly mock a party that had to go to Edinburgh to find a leader and rightly ask what that said about the quality of its MPs.

And so the Lib Dems, like Labour and the Conservative, limp on with a zombie leader.

Unlike the other two, we know there’ll be a change at the top of the Lib Dems in 2019. Whoever takes over will have a huge task, but also a huge opportunity. That’s been true of the last two Lib Dem leaders. Third time lucky?




About the author

James Millar is a political commentator and author

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