Vince Cable has succeeded by one measure at this year’s Lib Dem conference: he’s actually managed to make news. With his Boris-esque aside in his speech today, that Tory Brexiteers are guilty of inflicting ‘years of economic pain justified by the erotic spasm of leaving the EU’, he has, however briefly, drawn attention to a conference that few will be attending, and even fewer will realise is happening; a conference at which the highlight so far has been anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller telling the crowd of assembled Lib Dems that she’s not a Lib Dem.
His quip does, nevertheless, reek of desperation. After their bruising years in coalition, the Lib Dems had hoped, after Brexit, that they could turn themselves into the party of the 48 per cent. But the 48 per cent didn’t get the memo: in 2017, the Lib Dems’ vote share actually went down and Cable was drafted in to bring the party back from the brink. Now, one year into his leadership, his main contribution seems to have been openly planning for the party’s demise. He infamously missed a crunch Brexit vote because he was, allegedly, meeting people about the possibility of a new centrist party. He’s announced plans to open the Lib Dem leadership to non-MPs, reminding us only of how few Lib Dem MPs there are and how high their charisma deficit runs.
His comment today gives us some insight into why the Lib Dems are so irrelevant at a time when many commentators assumed they’d be cleaning up: they refuse to understand what Brexit is. They treat it, as do so many others in the Stop Brexit camp, as a kind of putsch executed by a cabal of Eurosceptic Tory MPs rather than a public revolt at the ballot box; as something visceral and unthinking rather than a decision made by voters who knew full well of the potential consequences; as a rumbling, to use Cable’s metaphor, in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s loins rather than a real desire for change in the country at large. Even to those who voted Remain – the majority of whom think Brexit should be implemented – the Lib Dems appear out-of-touch and obsessive.
Indeed if anyone has been having a ‘spasm’ since Brexit, if anyone has been letting pique overpower their political nous, it’s the Stop Brexit crew, that tiny minority of well-connected elitists, failed politicians and financiers who have made it their mission to crush the 17.4million-strong vote to Leave. Gina Miller said the Brexit vote made her ‘physically sick’. When Andrew Adonis, the New Labour lord turned Rearguard Remain campaigner, resigned as government infrastructure tsar over Brexit he, in a similar vein to Cable, called Brexit a ‘nationalist spasm’. And yet his bizarre Twitter activities since – accusing the BBC of being the ‘Brexit Broadcasting Corporation’, calling for Brexiteers to be barred from public office – have been nothing short of unhinged.
While most research suggests voters haven’t much changed their minds about Brexit, the majority of the 48 per cent are democrats who realise that the vote must be implemented. They are not the kind of people spending the wee hours firing off anti-Leaver vitriol into #FBPE Twitter or going on marches waving a ‘Brexshit’ placard. The Lib Dems have been trying to capture a constituency that is, as it turns out, tiny. And even then, as the deadening, unending talk in Remainer media circles about setting up a new anti-Brexit centrist party shows, the Lib Dems are even seen as a busted flush by those who might otherwise rally to their cause. That’s why this year’s Lib Dem conference feels even more irrelevant than usual, and why the party’s ailing leader can only make headlines by press releasing salty one-liners.