- The Lib Dems faced humiliation this week after falsely claiming to have gathered the support of 8 EU leaders for a second Brexit referendum.
- Insiders say leader Sir Vince Cable’s team are at “breaking point” as aides desert Lib Dem HQ.
- “Cable’s lost the plot and it’s rubbing off on his team,” one Lib Dem source tells BI.
- The party is failing to capitalise on Brexit as their leader Cable struggles to be heard.
LONDON & BRUSSELS – It was all smiles as Sir Vince Cable and his team made their way out of the Palais D’Egmont in Brussels on Thursday afternoon.
The Liberal Democrat leader had just enjoyed lunch with a handful of European leaders, who according to his press office, had all signed a declaration of support for Britain to hold another Brexit referendum.
The lunch – which took place in a grand mansion a short stroll from the European Union complex – was attended by figures including Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rassmussen, and Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator.
Cable was in a triumphant mood about this apparent European coup, when he spoke to Business Insider following the meeting.
“They [the leaders] were very supportive. There was no disagreement at all. They were all in the same place,” he said.
“Public opinion is moving in that direction,” he added. “The Remain-Brexit divide hasn’t changed a great deal but what has changed is that a majority of people support the proposition that there should be a vote on the final deal.”
But there was a big problem.
Less than an hour after the Lib Dems briefed journalists, the ALDE Group, a cross-party group in the European Parliament to whom the leaders are affiliated, issued a statement saying that “no statement was agreed upon or issued at the meeting.”
The Lib Dem press release had also claimed that Luxembourgish Prime Minister Xavier Bettel and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel attended. However, the former resigned a month ago, while the latter didn’t even show up.
Questioned by BI, a Lib Dem source later said that the leaders had merely reached a “verbal agreement” but admitted the leaders had not signed a formal agreement. The party has yet to fully explain how the statement came about.
It was a humiliating blow for the Liberal Democrats, who in recent years have acquired a reputation among Westminster journalists for boasting some of the most effective and reliable press officers.
“They fucked up massively,” an ex-senior Lib Dem told BI later that day.
However, BI has spoken to both serving and former Lib Dem staff members, who all said that Thursday’s horror-show was a culmination of months of tension and discontent inside Cable’s party.
Cable succeeded Tim Farron as leader of the Liberal Democrats following the general election, and with a change in leadership came a significant change in personnel within the party’s communications unit.
Paul Butters – a highly-rated press officer who now works for anti-Brexit group Best For Britain – stood down. Butters’ departure was planned in advance but nonetheless left the party with a sizable vacuum which needed filling.
However, more press officers soon followed him out of the door. “Most of the press office has disappeared over the last few months,” a source who recently left the party’s HQ told BI.
Cable’s anointing didn’t just trigger a change in personnel within the party’s press team – but a significant change in structure, which quickly caused frustration among employees, numerous sources have told BI.
While now-departed press officers were entrusted to handle the party’s output with minimal interference from the leadership, under Cable the approach is more top-down.
The leader’s office allegedly insists on scrutinizing every press release before it is published, an idiosyncrasy that has slowed down the communications machine and contributed to declining morale among the current press team.
“Cable’s lost the plot and it’s rubbing off on his team,” one well-placed source said, adding that a senior member of Cable’s press team had been “approaching breaking point” prior to Thursday’s press release disaster.
The party has not yet responded to BI’s request for comment.
“Cable’s lost the plot and it’s rubbing off on his team”
The election of Cable – a seasoned MP with Cabinet experience and plenty of respect across the Commons – was supposed to be the dawn of a new era for the Liberal Democrats, in which it would attract new support from voters put off by Theresa May’s hard Brexit Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
“There is a vast opening in British politics,” Cable told BI shortly before coming leader.
“We are very polarised between the hard right and hard left. There are millions of people with moderate views who are looking for a party that is shaped like the Liberal Democrats but haven’t been supporting us.
“My job is to turn that potential into political support.”
However, any suggestion that Cable could become the Nigel Farage of the anti-Brexiters has yet to materialise.
And with just over a year to go until Brexit, the party remains stagnant in the polls, while Labour and the Tories continue to dictate the political weather in Westminster.
For some time now this failure to make progress has caused growing tensions within the party. Now after a disastrous couple of days in Brussels, that unrest is starting to creep to the surface.
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