The Lib Dems were rewarded for their stance on Brexit, just like they were rewarded for opposing Iraq

After the local elections, Vince Cable's smile could mean, 'I told you so'

James Moore
Friday 03 May 2019 13:10 BST
Local elections: Which councils have changed hands so far?

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable told me just over a year ago to pay attention to council by-elections.

We’re doing a lot better in them than we are in the polls, he said, just like we were when we had our last surge in the wake of the Iraq War.

The Liberal Democrats fiercely opposed that unpopular conflict, by contrast to the “main” parties, and were handsomely rewarded at the ballot box.

Cable was wearing the biggest smile of all the party leaders this morning. See, I told you so, is what he could have said.

This brings us to the next set of elections, the ones for the European Parliament that the government desperately wants to prevent from going ahead but may not be able to given the state of domestic politics.

A couple of weeks ago I highlighted the dilemma facing referendum and remain-backing voters in England and Wales, compared to hardcore Brexiteers.

With Ukip a busted flush, the latter can congregate around Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

Labour’s continued fudging of the issue means the former have a choice of three: in addition to the Lib Dems, there are the Greens and Change UK/The Independent Group. Add Plaid Cymru to that list in Wales.

Efforts to form a single list (a party list system is used under the form of proportional representation, which is in force for European Parliament elections in the UK) didn’t get very far, to Cable’s chagrin.

He may have the last laugh, because that choice seems clearer this morning.

Change, and the Brexit Party for that matter, will point out that they weren’t involved in these elections, which is true.

But the opportunity that was handed to the Liberal Democrats was clear, and my, how they took. The party made sweeping gains, adding hundreds of new councillors and seizing control of several local authorities from the Tories in the process.

Going into the next election, assuming it happens, they have something they haven’t had for some time: momentum.

That’s particularly important when it comes to the ground game. Unlike the new kids on the block, the Lib Dems have an established election fighting machine.

Even in the age of Facebook, where both Change and the Brexit Party have been active, understandably so given the decisive role it played in the EU referendum and has played in other political contests, that still matters.

People like to complain that they never hear from politicians. They may very well be hearing from Cable’s army. If bright eyed and smiling canvassers can persuade people to turn out, it could make all the difference in the next election.

There’s nothing like victory to fire up the troops and get them motivated. The light of attention when you’ve spent long years in the darkness is powerful indeed.

It was easy for me to take Cable pointing to Iraq omens just over a year ago with a pinch of salt, and I have to admit that I did.

That’s no longer the case after the snap on their results that reads “best performance since the Iraq war”.

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The message to Remainers from his party is clear: We’re here and we can win. Unlike Labour, our message is consistent. It always has been.

The potential fly in the ointment is that Cable is stepping down. The party has for some reason chosen to hold the contest for his successor in the midst of the European campaign.

A divisive leadership battle could very easily spoil the celebration for this reinvigorated party, which has benefitted from a unity of purpose that is absent from the divided main parties.

In lieu of a very swift rethink, there’s an awful lot riding on the contenders behaving like grown ups. UK politicians have rather struggled with that of late.

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