Vince Cable MP reflects on recent events and some holiday reading


Jane Dodds applauds helpers at Brecon – Photo by Callum Littlemore

I heard the good news about Brecon and Radnorshire having disappeared for some R&R as soon as Parliament closed, and the new Lib Dem leadership was settled. I was delighted with the result not just for Jane Dodds and our campaigners – who fully deserved it – but for an excellent colleague, Roger Williams, who didn’t deserve to lose back in 2015. Our victory is testament also to Kirsty Williams, our AM, who kept the Lib Dem flame, and local party, alive through the years of exile.

I enjoyed my three visits to the constituency as party leader for more than the politics. I had memories of a mis-spent and romantic youth as a mountain guide in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons; an idyllic second honeymoon in a hotel below Pen-y-Fan; and several literary fests at Hay. Jane helped Rachel and me to locate a stunning B&B in ‘the oldest house in Wales’, a farmhouse and restored annex reached through three farm gates high up a hillside on the banks of the Wye and serving food which would not have been out of place in a top restaurant. A great by-election in more ways than one.

The outcome mattered, especially after Boris Johnson had come to Wales to stake his reputation and precarious authority on the result. The folly of the Conservative former MP beggars all understanding, but they put up a serious fight and would have ascribed all sorts of extravagant meaning had he held his seat.

A silly argument has erupted as to whether it was the Liberal Democrats or the ‘Remainer Alliance’ which won the seat. Of course, it was both. Only the Liberal Democrats could have fought an election with that intensity and organisation in that constituency; and with such a loyal, strong, local following. But the support of Plaid Cymru and the Greens (and Independent MPs) was invaluable both in not splitting the vote and through endorsement. The conversations I held with Plaid’s Adam Price, leading to our agreement on co-operation in Wales, were well spent. They will expect reciprocal help elsewhere and we must, of course, deliver.

The question now is the future of a wider Remainer Alliance. It must happen, not least because the Brexiteers will close ranks now that Johnson is offering Brexit on stilts. They have seen in Brecon what a split in the Brexit vote achieves.

But there are obvious problems in constructing a Remainer Alliance elsewhere. There will be no quarter given to Scottish nationalism; so, the Remainer Alliance will be predominantly with dissident Tories and Labour MPs. In England, there is little scope for agreement with Labour nationally whose leadership is ambivalent on Brexit and, more generally, deeply repellent to very many voters. We shall no doubt be told that the Western Allies had to work with Stalin; but this lot of Stalinists show little interest in working with us and doesn’t share our objectives.

On both Labour and Tory sides there has to be some mechanism for candidates to indicate that they would put party allegiance aside temporarily to secure a People’s Vote or revocation of Article 50, or both – the latter pending the former. While each side makes installing “their man” in Downing Street paramount, the chances of securing a temporary executive to resolve the Brexit crisis following a snap election are much reduced.

The key step, which would greatly help the Remain forces, is for the remaining liberal Conservatives to constitute a separate group for electoral purposes and to stand with the backing of the Lib Dems and other Remainers. In some seats this would make a crucial difference and would acknowledge the reality that the modern Tory party has little in common with the Major/Cameron (even, Thatcher) party and has been reborn as the English National Party

Back in the UK last week after a trip to Greece, I was called to Newsnight to defend the idea that, if Johnson falls to a No Confidence vote, we need a Government of National Unity rather than a government led by Jeremy Corbyn. The GNU is a rather grand phrase to describe an emergency administration lasting a few weeks to pass a brief piece of legislation which stops Brexit, ensuring ‘No Deal’ doesn’t happen without a mandate. It shouldn’t be led by a party leader but someone like, say, Ken Clarke as the Father of the House might command a cross-party majority.

How our own party responds to these challenges – and makes the weather – will be principal business for the new leadership team. I am delighted Jo has got off to such a good start, maintaining our momentum from the local and European elections. Having seen several fractious leadership contests and disorderly successions in our own party and others, I am very satisfied to have passed on the baton smoothly.

The addition of Sarah Wollaston to our ranks in the last few days is very welcome. She is a great catch, very widely respected for her ability and integrity. It was obvious from our private talks when I was leader that she identified with us and our values, and would fit well in the Liberal Democrat team. There is good reason to be confident now that some of the other, remaining, Independents from the original TIG group could make their way in our direction, adding still further to our credibility and appeal.

There is goodwill all round – from increasing numbers of voters and from a commentariat which now has no choice but to take the Lib Dems seriously.

***

I have been able to enjoy the break all the more for the company of Robert Harris’s new novel: Second Sleep. Ever since I praised his novels a few years ago his publishers have sent me advance copies of his new books. And so, Second Sleep arrived unheralded.

The new book is – well – odd. There is little or no resemblance to Harris’s Roman series or his wonderful Fatherland or Archangel. It is set in both the future and the past at the same time. Civilisation (that is, us) has been wiped out around 2025 due to some kind of societal collapse leading to famine and mass extermination (mercifully, Harris doesn’t dwell on all the details). Fourteen centuries or so later the descendants of the survivors have just about recreated Mediaeval England. The church is very much in charge which provides a satisfactory explanation of why the disaster happened (the Book of Revelations) but doesn’t encourage any awkward questions (ie heresy). The action is set in an Exmoor village with a priest sent by his Bishop to tidy up the loose ends around the unexplained death of another priest.

The plot is developed with Harris’s usual, page-turning skill. But I found myself constantly distracted by the strange ‘juxta-position’ of past, present and future: medieval man with excavated plastic buckets; a distant war against the Caliphate (which seems to be north of Hadrian’s Wall). Parts of the plot really do strain credibility. The pious, God-fearing, priest manages to suppress fear of an eternity in hell sufficiently to have some pretty satisfying sex with a local widow; other offences against God and the king are dealt with by public hanging outside medieval Exeter. One curious character rediscovers science, which has led his being branded on the forehead for heresy – but he isn’t deterred and gives a public demonstration of electricity based on having excavated equipment from a science lab.

Buried in the novel is a really interesting question: if we succeed in destroying civilisation through greed and overdependence on complex technology, how will our descendants see us? And what will our descendants be like?

* Sir Vince Cable is MP for Twickenham and was leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2017 until 2019.

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9 Comments

  • nigel hunter 20th Aug '19 - 11:55am

    That last paragraph is a l real philosophical one to explore. I hope we hear more from you on LDV now that you are the ‘Grand old man of the party’.

  • David Evershed 20th Aug '19 - 11:58am

    I would like to hear more about that “mis-spent and romantic youth as a mountain guide in the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons”.

  • Gwyn Williams 20th Aug '19 - 12:19pm

    I am intrigued by the nature of the reciprocation Vince has agreed with Adam Price. During the byelection the Welsh Party suggested that Plaid Cymru was acting for the greater good and that there was no reciprocation required. After the election that shifted to the involvement of any affected Local Party. In the last week it has emerged that part of the deal was that we will stand down in Anglesey in the expected General Election.
    The theory behind the Remain Alliance that we have a single candidate for Remain voters to coalesce around to stop a pro Brexit MP being elected is a given in England and the border areas of Wales. In Scotland the hegemonist nature of the SNP makes it a non runner. In North West Wales Plaid Cymru behaves in much the same way as the SNP in Scotland. Does nobody understand this in London and Cardiff?

  • Geoffrey Payne,

    reversing the welfare cuts

    Do you mean all the welfare cuts since 2010?

    This would include restoring the national Council Tax Benefit scheme and increasing the LHA rate back to the 50th percentile of local rents.

    When you talk about house building do you mean 100,000 new social homes a year or Shelter’s aim of 3.1 million new social homes in 20 years?

  • Dennis Wake 20th Aug '19 - 3:18pm

    The constituency of Montgomeryshire had a Liberal MP from the 1870s until 2010 apart from 1979 to 1983. Is there any particular reason why it has deserted the Liberal Democrats for the Conservatives after such a long time, such as boundary changes or an influx of English people ? Are there any signs of a Liberal revival there ? I understand it is to be abolished and the Southern part merged with Brecon and Radnor, the North with South Clwyd and some parts with Ceredigion if the number of MPs is reduced to 600.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Aug '19 - 9:31pm

    “if we succeed in destroying civilisation through greed and overdependence on complex technology, how will our descendants see us? And what will our descendants be like? ”

    It depends on whether or not they manage to learn from history. If they don’t they will be doomed to repeat our mistakes.

  • richard underhill 21st Aug '19 - 9:51am

    Geoffrey Payne 20th Aug ’19 – 2:09pm All these red lines!
    Party policy is the Single Transferable Vote, which is not strictly proportional and is more inclusive (non-tribal). Proportional Representation as practised since the Blair-Ashdown negotiations does not allow individual voters the choice they should have to prefer individual candidates.
    Vince Cable 20 August 2019 What about your own next book?

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