Sir Vince Cable has become the new leader of the Liberal Democrats with a promise to offer voters the possibility of an “exit from Brexit” through a second referendum on EU membership.
The former business secretary took up the role after nominations for the post closed without him facing any challengers, becoming, at 74, the oldest leader in the party’s history. He said that he aimed to ensure that the Lib Dems occupy the “gigantic space in the middle of British politics” left by the two main parties’ move to the extremes.
The vacancy for the leadership came after Tim Farron announced he would stand down because he had been unable to reconcile his Christian faith with the demands of leading a “progressive, liberal” party.
A disappointing general election campaign saw the party increase its tally of MPs by just three to stand at 12. Speaking in Westminster shortly after being named leader, Sir Vince said the Government’s approach to Brexit was taking Britain towards the “disastrous outcome” of crashing out of the European Union.
Negotiations were being conducted by a “dysfunctional, disorganised, disunited” administration, whose strategy was drawn up before the full complexity of Brexit was apparent and at a time when Theresa May had “serious political authority”, which she has now lost, he said.
Liberal Democrats would work with like-minded people in other parties to fight to keep UK participation in the single market and customs union and continued collaboration on research with European partners, he said.
He said: “What we now need is an exit from Brexit.
“The exit from Brexit comes as a result of the policy that we have adopted, which is that we must consult the British public at the end of the process.”
Voters should be asked “Do you wish to accept what is coming down the track, jumping off the cliff and hoping there’s a tree to catch you or do we want to stay within the European Union?”, he said.
Following last year’s referendum, Sir Vince set his face against Mr Farron’s offer of a second referendum, describing it as “seriously disrespectful and politically utterly counterproductive”.
But he threw his weight behind the idea earlier this week, insisting a new referendum would not be a re-run of the 2016 vote, but a new question in changed circumstances.
Sir Vince told activists: “We have gigantic space in the middle of British politics. The two major parties have been captured by ideologues, ideologues on the one hand who hate Europe and on the other hand who hate capitalism.”
He added: “As a result, British politics is more polarised and more divided than at any time any of us can remember.
“What is now badly missing is the basic commonsense and moderation and mutual respect that are what British politics is at its best.
“My aim is that our party and I will occupy that space in British politics.”