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No love lost on the road to Brexit

February 16, 2018 2:48 PM
By Sir Vince Cable in The Times
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Vince Cable valentine ()Love may be in the air but there is little of it lost between cabinet colleagues this Valentine's Day. With Britain negotiating as a disunited unit of one against a united block of 27 countries, the prospect of either 'no deal' or a very poor deal is growing. The prime minister's reaffirmation that she is negotiating to leave the customs union as well as the single market guarantees that there will be a hard and disruptive form of Brexit.

Senior ministers are beginning to set out their 'road to Brexit' speeches. I suspect these will be a series of different roads, with Philip Hammond unwilling to leave his driveway, Boris Johnson enjoying a few too many drinks with Nigel Farage before setting out, and Theresa May grappling with a broken sat-nav. Jacob Rees-Mogg hopes to be back-seat driver to all three.

There is a strong element of fantasy in the government's negotiating position. Ministers' protests, for example, that Britain can leave the customs union while continuing "frictionless trade" just do not stand up to scrutiny, as both Japanese car companies and Michel Barnier made clear last week. Departure from a customs union means that 'rules of origin' have to be enforced at the national frontier, even if there is tariff-free trade, causing disruption and delay to supply chain industries. Furthermore, the anomalies of the island of Ireland are just too great as the Irish Government politely insists on pointing out.

Remain MPs on all sides are starting to see that the time for gentle appeals for a more rational approach is over. Serious members of the Conservative and Labour parties are now willing to defy their party whip. The EU Withdrawal Bill is now in the House of Lords, and there are at least 14 amendments with a chance of success. All are being moved on a cross-party or no-party (in the case of Crossbenchers) basis. Mettle in the Commons later this year, to ensure these amendments are also agreed by MPs, will be vital.

What is now becoming clear is that there is growing cross-party momentum, too, in support of the Lib Dems' longstanding call for a public vote on the final deal. Chuka Umunna, Anna Soubry and others have joined the campaign, which has also attracted notable support in the Lords. Lord Lisvane, former Clerk of the House of Commons - and no one's firebrand - illustrated the case beautifully this month, praying in aid his 'very nervous' aunts, who having democratically decided to go to the cinema found that only Reservoir Dogs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were playing. Should they test their fragile nerves, he asked, or think again?

These efforts in parliament are welcome and crucial if we are to divert Britain from the hopeless path on which this government has set us. For some MPs, I do anticipate that the myopia of the Labour and Conservative parties could drive them away from their folds. Liberal Democrats, unsurprisingly, have a liberal policy on refugees and will welcome with open arms and an open mind anyone from a different political tradition who wants to join our party. However, many aghast rebels will retain old tribal loyalties but nonetheless choose to vote with the Liberal Democrats on Brexit issues. I welcome that too.

Beyond Westminster, we need an effort in the country to mobilise public opinion on three key points: firstly, that Brexit is not inevitable; secondly, that the best and only democratic way to stop Brexit is through a vote on the final deal; and finally, that the Government's deal will not be better than staying in the EU. It is in this respect that Liberal Democrats are critical. None of the many groupings springing up to take on the pro-European mantle have what we can bring to the table: a young, enthused membership of 100,000 troops to campaign on the ground.

I anticipate continuing strength in our numbers. For my own part, I now think we may have reached 'peak Corbyn', with his fans beginning a journey from adulation, to confusion, to disillusionment. On the big issue of the day, Jeremy simply isn't on the side of his young supporters, nor of the vast majority of his parliamentary party. Only the Liberal Democrats have been consistent and united in our pro-Remain stance, and in our determination that the people should have a choice between accepting the final Brexit outcome or an exit from Brexit.

Erosion of the faith among Labour supporting pro-European voters, a big campaign in the country and cross-party efforts in parliament all offer real hope that a change of course is in prospect. Liberal Democrats will continue to lead the fight.

Sir Vince Cable is leader of the Liberal Democrats