Sir Vince Cable on Brexit, his 'Shangri-La' New Forest - and the R-word...
HOURS after losing Twickenham in the 2015 general election that gave the Conservatives a majority and paved the way for the EU referendum, Sir Vince Cable was on the M3 with his wife, Rachel Smith, heading for their rural retreat near Brockenhurst.
He had dramatically been defeated in the seat he’d held for the Liberal Democrats since 1997 on a “disastrous” night for his party, of which he was deputy leader as well as business secretary in the five-year coalition government.
“It was a bit of a shock,” he admits. “The day after the election, which was very traumatic, I came down here after the result. We just drove straight here and went out for a walk – and suddenly the world felt better. It was a good way of dealing with it, and we started making plans.
“Coming to the New Forest, it got me immediately out of the trauma in Twickenham.”
He visits from London once or twice a month but he’s doesn’t claim a strong local link, which he credits to Rachel, who he married in 2004. She calls herself “Mrs Vince” and has lived in the area for decades, now helping to chair the not-for-profit New Forest Villages Housing Association.
Their relationship is clearly strong. When she leaves the room he’s wary of small talk, almost awkward, and less avuncular than you might expect – for which the reason becomes clear later. Her return seems to bring him to life.
Their cosy, secluded New Forest home was a haven during his time in power: “It was wonderfully restorative especially when I was in the cabinet. It was extremely intense: a 24/7 life, constant pressure to make big decisions and a lot of profile, some of it unwanted.
“To come here it’s calm and peaceful; waking up to the sound of birds instead of screeching cars and police sirens. It’s a Shangri-La, it’s a wonderful place.”
Since losing office, he’s perhaps found time for the smaller details – last year he wrote to the A&T letters page complaining about the amount of local litter.
“This is such a wonderful part of the world. Rachel and I, we share this feeling. We both cycle and go down to the village and go past bottles and plastic containers. The mess is unbelievable and you can’t get your head round why people do not have respect for the area. We go round about once a month and pick up the rubbish.
“What I did say in that letter is the council should make a bit more effort and set the standard. But it’s really people in general; people being more socially aware.”
Despite being 73 years old he’s not winding down. He says: “I am an anti-retirement person. I’m probably doing more now than ever before. The R-word is banned in our household.”
As well as a visiting professorship at the London School of Economics, he’s involved in other academic work, social enterprises and charities. Following his acclaimed books about the 2008 credit crunch, he has now penned a first novel from the garden office of his Brockenhurst home.
A thriller, Open Arms draws on his own knowledge as business secretary to tell the political and personal story of a female Conservative MP and an arms contract with India. He’s used his experience of the country, which was the birthplace of his first wife, Olympia Rebelo, who died in 2001.
It is due to be published by Atlantic Books in August or September, and he’s “slightly apprehensive” about it. “It’s reasonably well written. I’m obviously a beginner, I’m not John Le Carre. I have no doubt that some people will put the boot in but I am hopeful it will be well received.”
Sir Vince knew of Rachel from their university years at Cambridge. Not long after losing Olympia he met her again at a United Nations Association meeting in Lymington. She challenged him over agriculture policy, invited him to inspect her cows, “and it just went from there”.
His personal life is where his reputation for a cool head ends, he says: “I am emotional around family and personal relations. But in public I try to maintain a professional manner.
“With political things I have learned to be a bit detached and not get overwrought. During the coalition there was a very difficult episodes: Rupert Murdoch, tuition fees and I was more or less under continual scrutiny. You have to learn how to manage that kind of thing without losing your cool. You’re being pursued by journalists.”
The pursuit changed him. He was at the centre of a media storm during 2010/11 over his crucial role in deciding Rupert Murdoch’s ultimately failed bid to gain total control of Sky. He was stripped of that responsibility after he was recorded by Telegraph journalists, posing as constituents, saying he had “declared war” on the media mogul.
He recalls: “I discovered that people were coming to my surgery with microphones. It did make you paranoid about who is listening to what. It did really shatter my belief in dealing with people.”
It’s an incident he mentions, unprompted, a couple of times during the interview, and he adds: “Episodes like that do tend to make you less trusting.“
That was a low point, but he reels off successes including boosting the British car, aerospace and pharmaceutical industries, banking reforms, shared parental leave, green and business investment, and protecting small farms from supermarkets.
What are his views of some of the people he worked with in coalition? David Cameron was “charming and polite but I did not feel there was much warmth”. He liked George Osborne: “good company” and “clever”.
He had “bad tempered discussions” with the then Home Secretary and now Prime Minister, Theresa May: “I do rate her. She is very professional and poised and competent. But I think there’s two problems. She can be very narrow and blinkered and she’s also a bit of a control freak. She does not delegate.”
That may be a problem during Brexit negotiations with the EU, he warns.
For the Lib Dems, the coalition ended “disastrously”. Although he thinks Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, now both out of government, “must be rueing their decision to force us out” after their “ruthless” targeting of their coalition colleagues’ seats.
He still supports the infamous rise in university tuition fees that many blame for the party’s undoing, but he regrets not fighting harder against Nick Clegg’s 2010 election promise not to increase them. That was “dreadful” politics, he says.
He reflects: “It’s better I am not in parliament. I feel sorry for my colleagues like Nick Clegg having been a deputy prime minister and now a back bencher trying to do something.” He adds: “I’m not glad that I lost, but there are worse fates.”
He’s not given up on getting back in to parliament, however: “If there’s an early election, which I think there should be, then I will stand again in Twickenham.”
Proof he’s still up for the fight is his high-profile work for the Remain referendum campaign, including speaking at a series of public meetings around the New Forest – New Milton, Brockenhurst, Cadnam and Burley – often taking on local MP and Brexiter Sir Desmond Swayne.
The national debate was “appalling”, he says, with public trust in politics damaged by “blatantly dishonest arguments”. He points to the claim that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU as a prime example.
“The level to which people like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson sank was unbelievable. I think it will be felt for some time.”
Immigration was a huge motivation for Leave supporters, he thinks, as well as a nostalgia among older voters for a past Britain, particularly in rural populations like the New Forest which have not become accustomed to the more mixed communities that have developed in urban areas.
He remembers the New Milton hustings: “Someone stood up and said, ‘There’s 80 million Turks and they’re coming to the New Forest’ – not quite like that but that sort of thing. I looked around and there was not one migrant in the room.”
He warns: “We have voted to move house but we do not know what house we are moving to. We need to see what the house is like.
“I fear that we may end up in a bad place and people will get disillusioned. My instincts are that it will not end well.
“Over 10-20 years it’s possible that it would be sorted out eventually and we will form new relationships and people will adjust. But we’re going to pass through a messy phase and a lot of damage will be done.”
Sir Vince made his reputation by predicting the 2008 credit crunch. Locally, he foresees a Lib Dem “revival” in the New Forest where the party currently only has two members on the district council.
Internationally, he fears the consequences of President Trump – an “appalling character”. He says: “The problem is if all the people voting for Trump become disillusioned then they become even more extreme, and it’s not just rhetoric it becomes violent. We are some way from that but it makes people rather fearful.”
Despite the recent defeats, however, overall Sir Vince seems content with his record: “There’s the popular narrative about politicians being self-serving. But if you set about it you can use government in a constructive way.”