Did Sir Vince Cable convince me that he’s an able leader?
by Matt Coot
In the presence of the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, I was struck by an aura of trust. It was a new feeling for me, as I was among many who had their trust shaken in this politician after his instrumental part in carrying out the broken promise of tuition fees during the coalition government. However, as he spoke with serenity and intelligence, he portrayed the qualities that any kind of leader requires: wisdom, compassion, and experience. But, would these qualities be enough to convince me, and most importantly, the wider voting public, that this was the leader that they could depend on?
It was the evening of Friday 22nd July, when I walked into the Copthorne Hotel, Plymouth, and settled down with a pot of tea as I waited for the arrival of the newly announced leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. It wasn’t my first time meeting a political leader, as I had already met the former leader, Tim Farron, on two occasions. However, this was the first time that I would meet Sir Vince Cable. I was of two minds over what I was feeling about the new leader and I was also feeling rather nervous over meeting a man that I had seen on the television so many times over the years. He would also turn out to be the first Strictly Come Dancing contestant that I’ve met. So as I was sitting there, listening to the hubbub of excitement from other Liberal Democrat members who were filling the bar area, I was thinking to myself: “Will I be giving Vince the infamous Len Goodman ‘seven!’?”
This was the first event for Vince Cable, outside of London, since becoming leader the day before. In fact, Vince is on a bit of a tour around the country to meet and discuss issues with regional members of the party, and to also present his vision for the way forward. I felt very fortunate to be present at the first event, not only as a party member but also as a new political blogger.
When the event began, and we were all packed into a large function room, sitting expectantly for the new leader to begin to talk, it was then that I had my first proper look at the face I knew so well, if only through a television or laptop screen, or the pages of a newspaper. As his calculating blue eyes moved across the room, surveying the audience that were there to judge him, I instantly saw the wisdom and calmness that I was hoping to see.
Vince’s opening speech was an offer of a conversation. He wanted to hear the opinions and experiences of the members and activists from Cornwall and Devon. “You are the party, I am just the leader,” was a phrase that was repeated and felt like a genuine attempt to ensure that he was going to be a leader who listened and worked with everyone in the party, rather than a one-size fits all approach to campaigning. He even promised that this was “the first but not the last visit”. This democratic approach, this assurance of teamwork and willingness to listen, was something that I appreciated. However, I was still hesitant to trust. It had been broken before, how could I regain the trust I had? What was Vince going to do to repair it?
But it was trust that I felt as his speech went on. He discussed Brexit, and how it would be a “financial catastrophe” for Cornwall – something I certainly agree on – and how there was a huge complexity to Brexit that hasn’t yet been entirely recognised. As it has already been widely reported, Vince wants there to be an “exit to Brexit” and this is something that everyone in the room agreed with. The party is behind an exit to Brexit. But it is also a party that Vince declared had a “competent economic strategy” and a “social conscience”. It was a party that supported small businesses but also continued to fight inequalities for a fairer and freer society.
After his speech, Vince went on to take questions from those in the room. I’m not going to write, verbatim, what was asked and answered, because I feel that this would be unfair on those asking the questions, as I had not had chance to gain their permission. However, I will be writing about what impressed me, or didn’t impress me, about some of the things that Vince Cable spoke on.
At the age of 74, it might be confusing to some as to why Vince has returned to politics. He lost his seat in the 2015 General Election, but returned for the 2017 snap election. During the time away from frontline politics, Vince has been enjoying ballroom dancing and has written a post-Brexit political thriller novel, Open Arms, due for release in September. Upon winning his seat, in June 2017, and then becoming leader, Vince has returned to the forefront of UK politics. But why? The answer is simple, he wants the Liberal Democrat party to make a breakthrough. And, as he explained, it is possible. People are becoming “disillusioned by the right” and are realising that the “left are unelectable”. There is a gap in the centre of politics that the Liberal Democrat party represent. However, the new leader was adamant that this breakthrough wouldn’t happen with a coalition agreement. The party was left “badly scarred” by the last coalition, and he also explained how he felt that no other party could align with the Liberal Democrat values, that the other parties were so far removed from what the Liberal Democrats believe in. This was a positive statement for me. I wanted a guarantee of there being no coalition agreement, and this seemed to guarantee that.
On the topic of coalition, it was quite interesting that Vince believes there is already an unofficial coalition currently working together in the Houses of Parliament. He went on to explain that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, the leaders of the Conservative Party and the Labour party respectively, are working towards the same goals for Brexit. Accusing the pair of “play acting” and working towards the same outcome. Of course, to anybody watching carefully, this is quite an accurate assessment of what is going on with regards to Brexit. The Tories are being allowed to get away with anything, with regards to Brexit, all because the leader of the Labour party wants the same thing. Is Labour really the Opposition? Is Labour really the “Party of Europe”? Vince Cable certainly doesn’t believe they are. Perhaps this is a question to be explored in a future article.
On the topic of Labour and Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable discussed how he believed the dishonesty that Labour perpetrated during the election would be revealed as time went on. In fact, it had already begun. Just this week, the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, changed the party’s tune by changing the party’s promise to wipe tuition fees from being a ‘promise’ to being an ‘ambition’. Haven’t we heard this type of thing before? For example, wasn’t there something on the side of a bus during the referendum campaign that turned out to be an ambition instead of a promise? In other words, a lie? Is this just the same old political trick? Vince seems to believe it is, and actually, so do I. So will this dishonesty reach those students, young people, and others who voted for Labour because of this promise? If it does, then Vince has an answer to where they can look for a party that believes in what they do. But how can the Liberal Democrats persuade a disillusioned portion of the population to trust them again? This is a challenge that Vince – and the party at large – will have to face.
After the event, a friend of mine, who had been in the audience, asked me if I thought that Vince Cable was like an “economics professor with a big ole stick up his butt”, a reference to a scene in the political drama, The West Wing. Through my laughter, I agreed. Vince Cable’s approach did come across like he was an economics professor. He talked of the economic crisis as a heart attack; he talked about the party’s sensible economic policy; about why the Royal Mail had to be sold off during the coalition government; about tax policies, with the how and why they were put in place and how to improve them; how there were parts of the British economy that were world class and how to use this to innovate and encourage growth; as well as lots of other examples. Sometimes my mind would wander, but most of the time I was kept enthralled by his answers. Did I think he was like an “economics professor with a big ole stick up his butt”? Yes. But I also believed he is a leader with intelligence and wisdom. He is a leader with experience. So yes, I believe he was like Josiah Bartlett in the West Wing, but is that a bad thing?
I believe that Vince Cable might not be the leader that is wanted right now, but he is the leader that the Liberal Democrats need. In fact, he is the leader that the nation deserves and the one the nation needs.
Did the Rt Hon Sir Vince Cable MP, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, convince me that he is the one to lead the Liberal Democrats? I’m happy to say that he did. Not entirely, there is still work to do, but I do believe that Cable is able to lead the party in the direction that it needs to be going.