Vince Cable
Leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Twickenham

Politicians always talk about the future as if it were full of dramatic possibilities. The reality is usually prosaic and uneventful. But the next few months could, genuinely, reshape the country’s future in ways that will be felt for years ahead. It will soon be clear as to whether Brexit will actually happen and, if so, through amicably negotiated divorce or, as is increasingly likely, through an acrimonious separation without a deal. And on the back of the bitterness and division generated by Brexit, within parties rather than between them, there is the possibility of a political realignment.
Amid the negotiating posturing and expectation management, it is difficult to know what are the risks of a ‘no deal’ outcome which, in the worst case, could involve a severe disruption in cross channel trade and all transactions currently subject to European rules. Since the Government is, itself, spending hundreds of millions on preparations for the worst outcome, we must assume that there are serious risks. People on both sides of the argument are talking up the risks, the Government no doubt calculating that there will be relief if it negotiates some kind of deal, however poor, and can, moreover, blame the European negotiators if the worst happens. Still, the public and business sector, in particular, is seriously rattled.
One of the consequences of the speculation about the disruption of a ‘no deal’ is that public mood has shifted, perhaps decisively, to the view that Brexit is a mistake. Recent survey data suggests that a substantial majority of the public, and of parliamentary seats, now favour remaining in the European Union, with the shift especially marked in the so-called ‘left behind’, relatively deprived, areas. And there is a similar shift towards support for a ‘peoples’ vote’, a referendum, on the final deal (or no deal).
It remains to be seen how the political parties react. There is growing pressure on Labour, internally and externally, to drop its ambiguity, and explicit support for Brexit from Jeremy Corbyn, and to embrace the ‘peoples’ vote’. The Prime Minister shows no sign of deferring to the demand for a ‘peoples’ vote’. But she was equally adamant that there would be no early election back in 2017. It is suffice to say that there is a great deal of uncertainty, and much to play for.
There are severe strains on both the Conservative and Labour parties. There is also an unsatisfied yearning from millions for an alternative which does not involve the extremes offered by the two main parties. My party offers such an option but we face the handicap of the ‘first past the post’ voting system and the deep tribal loyalties which Labour and Conservatives still attract. Any new – untested and unknown – party faces the same obstacle to an even greater degree.
I am devoting a good deal of thought as to how to break through that impasse. Some people look to France for inspiration but their two stage Presidential voting system is far more open to innovative change than ours. The Canadian model, which propelled the liberal Justin Trudeau to power, is closer to the British system and there are some potentially valuable ideas from that source.
But what is needed is more than just distaste for what is on offer, but new ideas and an ability to make liberal social democratic values attractive in a world where the politics of identity has taken centre stage and many are attracted to seemingly simple solutions to complex problems.
I have been trying with my colleagues to set out an agenda which addresses such problems as: how to control the technology giants while promoting innovations; how to make serious inroads into housing supply; how to engender a form of capitalism which is socially responsible and motivated to invest productively; how to tax business in the internet age and how to tax land values in a practical way; how to fund the health service; how to support the school system without suffocating centralised controls; how to stimulate productivity channelling the joint energies of the state and private sector; and how to counter chronic underinvestment in infrastructure and public services within disciplined public finance.
But before any government can tackle those issues seriously, it has to find a way out of the Brexit maze.