Q: In view of Labour’s abstention on a People’s Vote, is there any avenue to resubmit a vote on a People’s Vote? Now Jeremy Corbyn has betrayed Remainers, what will the Liberal Democrats do?
A: On the parliamentary side of things, we didn’t get close to winning because Jeremy Corbyn abstained. The Labour Party has committed to supporting a People’s Vote but he refuses. He is personally committed to delivering Brexit, in keeping with his political philosophy. He is worried about his party which is now falling apart and he doesn’t want to antagonise the Brexiteers in his party.
The simple answer is yes, we can bring a People’s Vote back. The procedure on this is very flexible. There is no question – it will come back to Parliament. The immediate process is as follows: on Tuesday, Parliament votes again. The deal is unlikely to get through. If it gets through, we get a three-month extension. It is much likelier that it will be defeated. Theresa May will go and ask for an extension. The EU will say that it needs to be a long term extension such as a year or two years, that we must prepare ourselves for European elections in the meantime. All of this adds time to building a case for a People’s Vote. Our role is in giving leadership to a People’s Vote. We’re being vindicated and proven right, even if we don’t get credit. We will keep leading this fight.
I think the mechanism for a People’s Vote is this: I do not believe in waiting around for Jeremy Corbyn. If Theresa May can’t make any progress, the penny will drop at number ten and they will know they have a better chance of getting a resolution by going to the country and giving them the choice between Theresa May’s deal and Remain. When we met with them, the ministers surrounding Theresa May were taking detailed notes for a People’s Vote very carefully. When Tom Brake met with them, they talked at length about the mechanics of a People’s Vote. They are definitely thinking seriously about it. If they have no choice, the government will come forward for a People’s Vote. This is what I feel in my bones will happen.
Q: The People’s Vote was our idea and we have been consistently leading the fight on it. How do we take credit for a People’s Vote?
A: People have noticed it’s us that’s leading the fight. We have to accept that we’re only going to achieve it by working with others. One of the good things coming from this situation is that there is less tribalism and we are all recognising the commonalities between each other. This opens the way to a new kind of politics. We shouldn’t be shy about claiming credit - we were there first - but we will win by working with others, which is the most profound change.
Q: Is the Labour amendment from two backbenchers about a People’s Vote still a possibility?
A: Even if Corbyn allowed his people to vote, it wouldn’t be enough. We would need more. The way this will come is by us keeping the fight alive and pushing the government against the wall until they give the People a vote. We mustn’t wait around for Labour. They’ve sold out. We didn’t do well with young people during the coalition years but I have been going to plenty of colleges where there are more Liberal students than Labour ones, and this is because they know they’ve been sold out by Labour.
Q: How do we translate support for a People’s Vote into support for us in elections?
A: A lot of it is translating into support for us. We haven’t tested national opinion but actual election results show a healthy swing in our direction. It isn’t just opinion polls though. YouGov polls a few weeks ago showed that in a General Election where Labour is no longer recognised as a pro-remain party, the Liberal Democrats poll at 25%. We are back at a level of support from just before the 1997 election. It’s coming through. In local elections, these are about local issues, so it’s not just about Brexit but also about keeping up our reputation as local champions. There are parts of North England where fighting Brexit is not a selling point but we still do well in local government and this is reflected in votes. We shouldn’t hide our commitments but ultimately, local government is about local issues.
Q: The pledge by Nick Clegg on tuition fees is still on young people’s minds. We’ve missed an opportunity to educate the country about coalition and as the junior partner, compromises had to be made. Although Nick made that clear in a broadcast, it came too late after the coalition. We should win back young people’s support in this way.
Q: Lots of people care about Brexit and join the Liberal Democrats because of it. They then speak to local parties who only focus on local issues and subsequently, they walk away. How can we engage them?
A: Young people are coming over to our side. Amongst young voters, I now rank well above Jeremy Corbyn and better than Theresa May. Young audiences do want to hear about Europe and climate change and homelessness. We shouldn’t just think globally. There’s a saying - think global, act local. We have to translate global issues into things that affect people locally. A lot of people just think it’s a big thing that doesn’t relate to them. The political challenge is to translate our principles into local action and show how it’s working. It’s about connecting the dots between the big picture and local community action.
Q: Do you think that TIG is only start of more breakaways from Labour and the Conservatives? What should our response be?
A: This is definitely part of something bigger. Just a minute ago, another Tory MP left the party, Nick Boles. There is now a real chance that the Tory party will crack. The strains are beginning to show. A lot of people drifted away from UKIP and have joined local conservative parties that are small and geriatric. They only require a small number of people to take them over and they’ve been turning their fire on Lib Dem MPs. It’ll come to a head when Theresa May steps down, which is certainly only a few months away. If they elect a hard-line leader like Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, a lot of them will come over to us. With regard to the Labour party, they have applied a measure to stop people leaving – it’s called Tom Watson. He’s mobilised the moderate, sensible Labour MPs and is trying to stop large scale deselections. He will probably fail at this, and then we will get a big migration over from Labour. There’s enough damage on both sides anyway to suggest a need for something new. The MPs in TIG were always going to be independent. We must reach out the hand of friendship to TIG. Anna Soubry speaking here yesterday made it clear there’s a lot in common. I want to take forward this relationship. We can tap into the energy and novelty value of TIG and combine it with our roots to create something huge. That’s why these supporter reforms are so important. We must embed them in our own party. The decaying Labour and Conservative structures are breaking up.
Q: Part of this upheaval is the birth of the European movement. Its membership has increased hugely.
A: We should be part of this and ahead of this.
Q: When it comes to elections, if TIG face elections and by-elections, should we not field candidates against them?
A: There is a decision-making process that this membership is part of and contributes to. I think it would be foolish for two parties who agree on a lot of things to be slitting each other’s throats in an election. Anna Soubry, yesterday, didn’t see any point in TIG standing against us. In seats like Totness and Cambridgeshire, this might be an issue and we will have to make difficult decisions. If we’re to develop a relationship with TIG, they will have to make these decisions too. We’re not at that point yet but we should be thinking about it.
Q: How can we promote employee shared ownership?
A: Something very nasty has happened. A few years ago, there was a strong case for welfare reform to incentivise people to work. We created a system that was much simpler. The Tories have taken a lot of money out of it and made it much meaner and nastier. The process is really brutal. As an MP, I have cases every week of people’s lives who have been totally wrecked by Universal Credit. They’re evicted, de-housed, rehomed constantly. There is a latent issue of a million people who are in absolute poverty, who have to use food banks, who are let down by the benefits system. The government is utterly insensitive to it. We took up a good position when the budget went through to insist that the government puts more money in it after Osborne took millions from it, and we should also cancel tax relief for the higher paid in society. We see enormous hardship and it’s easy to get desensitised when it's commonplace. But there are horrific things happening. We can address this problem in practical ways. I went to a hostel in York yesterday that the Lib Dem council have put together and they’ve got excellent facilities for families and rough sleepers. We can do this on the ground to address these problems. We must act proactively, not reactively, to poverty. We need comprehensive reform of the way companies function and their social responsibilities. When I became party leader, I continued being voluntary chair of a bus company. We find that by operating as a company without an obligation to shareholders, we can pay a decent wage. Many of our bus drivers are ex-prisoners and we operate socially and environmentally. If this model is more common, it removes some harshness from the system.
Q: I want our party to endorse Philip Austen’s European Raconteur report. It showed the callousness of the government towards people, families – an alienated society, because the government has allowed this to go on. It is the attitude of the government that there is no way out of poverty except by work.
A: A lot of these problems are due to the iniquitous testing of disabled people. This didn’t come about just under this government. It’s also Labour governments that have allowed this in the past to get through. There’s a mindset that disabled people have to be pushed into work regardless of whether they are ready for it. It’s done in a crass and insensitive way. We need to change the way disabled people are dealt with.
Q: When will the Liberal Democrats give the biggest challenge facing the world, climate change, the attention it deserves?
A: The side effects of Brexit mean that big issues are not being dealt with. Climate change is at the top of the list. The recent children’s strikes in schools is admirable. We’re being put to shame by them. Climate change is not a problem, it’s an emergency. It must be at the top of all our lists. The problem we have politically with climate change is getting a connection between this massive issue and linking it into real things people can do. We must identify practical campaigns where individuals can make a difference. The Young Liberals started a campaign five years ago to get plastic bags taxed. They brought it to us while we were in coalition and we pushed it through. Plastic bag usage has been cut by 80%. When we had power in coalition, we used it to focus on climate change issues. I ran the Green Investment Bank and Britain is now the leading source of wind power in the world. The Tories sold it off. If we were in government, it would be one of the first things that I would bring back. We achieved a lot. We must engage with people who are in favour of tackling climate change and create jobs related to this as well. A combination of agitation and practical action is the way forward.
Q: Do you think we could tackle climate change without imposing lifestyle changes on people that might be seen as illiberal?
A: Look at what’s happening in France. Macron was trying to take a huge step to penalise pollutive motor vehicles. The yellow vest movement has been close to bringing him down. We must learn from this that there are many people who are caused a great deal of hardship if they have to deal with these rules. There has to be a change in lifestyle but it must be done in a way that helps those who are least able to handle it.
Q: With a wealth of experience in business and in politics, what three key pieces of advice would you give others?
A: Stamina is key. Life is long distance, not a sprint. You will have to take knocks and defeats and keep smiling and persisting. I had plenty of defeats before getting into Parliament.
Have a clear set of beliefs and philosophy. This party is brilliant for this on big issues like Iraq war, Brexit etc. You must always have a grounded set of beliefs to hold onto.
Thirdly, have a life. Politics is not everything. I have a wonderful family. You’ve got to have something else. I’ve managed to keep up my weekly dancing lessons going, even through coalition. I try and read a novel a week. You always have to have something else to switch off with.