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Sir Vince Cable MP: Brexit has fractured old alliances and is fostering new ones with each passing day

4 min read

With 50 days until the UK’s planned EU exit date, Liberal Democrat Leader Sir Vince Cable writes: “We stand ready to lead any realignment, which could deliver liberal values – market economics with an active state, a strong belief in local democracy, and a firm commitment to make Britain the world’s most educated nation”.

Today marks 50 days until Article 50 is due to expire. The Prime Minister is engaged in two different but equally hopeless staring competitions, the first with Parliament, and the second with Brussels. Neither really shows signs of blinking, so another House of Commons confrontation looms.

Theresa May’s temporary reprieve last week, uniting Conservative MPs behind the impossible, is fading by the day in relevance. Sometimes it appears that the Number 10 bunker has cut off the telephones and turned off all the televisions, proceeding in blissful ignorance of a firmly united European position – that they cannot abandon the Irish ‘backstop’ which, lest we forget, was a British proposal. Meanwhile, without substantive changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, Conservative backbenchers (of both Leave and Remain bents) will be no happier next week than they were in January.

Conservative MPs judged – in the interest of party unity – that it was worth giving the PM one final turn of the wheel. That judgement was clearly wrong.

What is needed next is for enough of the many Conservatives who are diametrically opposed to ‘no deal’ – many of them sit in Cabinet – to vote for an amendment which will do more than wish it away. In all likelihood, that means wresting control of the parliamentary timetable from government and making time to legislate so that Britain does not leave the EU without an agreement. It can be done, and it must now be done.

With the dangers and divisions of ‘no deal’ firmly out of the picture, Parliament would then face the real choice before it.  Deliver Brexit through the agreement or remain in the European Union. Since Parliament opposes the agreement, the best course for the Prime Minister is to accept the case for a People’s Vote. Her last best hope of resuscitating her withdrawal deal is to take it to the public. A referendum could be organised before the new European Parliament sits in July

Liberal Democrats would of course argue strongly that Brexit has failed in its own terms. The promises of the Leave campaign simply haven’t been delivered and cannot be delivered.  Choosing May’s deal – instead of the deal we have as full members – would mean many more years negotiating and wrangling, and a poorer country at the end of it. Britain is stronger, safer, and better off leading the European Union than we ever will be leaving it.

Whichever way it goes, my reading is that the Article 50 story has a while longer to run yet.  Britain is not ready to leave the EU on 29th March, and the prospects of doing so recede daily. Yet I am desperate to bring the Brexit argument to a close. If we do remain in the European Union, there will be a substantial economic dividend from doing so. The debate then will be about how to take the country forward. The contours of that debate may look very different from those of the present party system. 

Conservatives who found their way into Parliament in the Cameron years look on aghast as their colleagues fulminate in red-faced rage about Europe and immigration. An increasing number of Labour MPs feel like square pegs in round holes as their local parties are taken over by Momentum and their leader defends Venezuelan socialism more vigorously than Britain’s place in the Europe. Beneath the surface, Brexit has fractured old alliances, and is fostering new ones with each passing day. 

We stand ready to lead any realignment, which could deliver liberal values – market economics with an active state, a strong belief in local democracy, and a firm commitment to make Britain the world’s most educated nation.  And our message is gaining traction.  Former Labour and Conservative voters are delivering Liberal Democrat victories in council by-elections almost every week.  Where the voters lead, we expect politics – in due course – to follow. 

Sir Vince Cable is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Twickenham

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