15/08/2018 Leader of the Lib Dem’s, Vince Cable, listens as Gina Miller addresses the liberal democrat conference in Brighton today.
The party has struggled to capitalise on divisions within Labour and the Conservatives over Brexit © Charlie Bibby/FT

Vince Cable, UK Liberal Democrat leader, will denounce Brexit on Tuesday as an “erotic spasm” and call on Theresa May to back a new referendum on leaving the EU.

Sir Vince will also warn EU leaders that they should not “feel sorry for” the prime minister, despite her difficulties bridging the gap between pro-EU and hardline Brexiter factions in her own Conservative party.

“Deep down, the prime minister knows Brexit is a bad idea,” the Lib Dem leader will tell his party conference in Brighton. Sir Vince will add that Mrs May could still show “true leadership” by backing a new referendum, a prospect that the prime minister has ruled out.

The warning comes as the Lib Dems have struggled to capitalise on divisions within the country’s two largest parties over Brexit; its support is at around 10 per cent in recent opinion polls.

And the conference, in Brighton, has exposed one of the party’s major problems: its lack of charismatic figures. On Monday the biggest ovation was for Gina Miller, the anti-Brexit campaigner who has declined to join the party or even to endorse wholeheartedly its main aim of a new Brexit referendum.

The day’s second-biggest ovation was arguably for Nick Clegg, the former party leader, when it was suggested that he could be the British equivalent of Emmanuel Macron, who formed a centrist movement that took him to the French presidency.

Sir Nick, whose reputation was badly damaged by his time as deputy prime minister in the coalition government and who lost his seat as an MP last year, replied that such a figure would need to arrive “unencumbered” with political baggage.

No Liberal Democrat leader since Sir Nick in October 2010 has had a net positive approval rating, according to pollster YouGov. His successors, Tim Farron and Sir Vince, have both struggled to make national headlines.

Sir Vince, the 74-year-old former business secretary, has already indicated that he will step down as leader, probably in the middle of next year, once Brexit has been “resolved”, the local elections have taken place and reforms to open the party up have been approved.

The subsequent leadership election is again likely to highlight the Lib Dems’ shallow talent pool. Although Sir Vince’s proposed new rules would allow any member to become leader, most Lib Dems expect his successor to be one of the party’s current 12 MPs.

15/08/2018 Gina Miller addresses the liberal democrat conference in Brighton today.
Anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller addressed the Lib Dem conference but has declined to join the party © Charlie Bibby/FT

Of those 12, two have already served as leader. Of the remaining 10, four are mentioned as potential leadership candidates — Ed Davey, the former environment secretary, Jo Swinson, the deputy leader, Layla Moran, the education spokeswoman, and Christine Jardine, the foreign affairs spokeswoman.

Ms Moran and Ms Jardine were only elected to parliament 15 months ago; Ms Moran’s seat is affected by proposed boundary changes, which could turn it Conservative.

Ms Swinson, 38, told the conference that the Lib Dems must “own the failures” of the coalition government between 2010 and 2015. She said the Lib Dems should have “done more” to stop tough immigration policy, reforms of the National Health Service, and cuts to benefits.

Sir Ed, 52, wants the Lib Dems to find bold distinctive ideas. “If you’re in the middle of the road, you have to be bloody visible — otherwise you get squashed,” he said.

In theory the Lib Dems’ opposition to Brexit could help to revive their opinion poll ratings, just as their opposition to the Iraq war did. But the new leader will take over when Britain is likely to have already left the EU.

One point for optimism is that the Lib Dems do have a larger pipeline of potential future candidates: the membership has more than doubled since 2015 to around 100,000, partly because of Brexit. “There’s a new generation — mostly young professionals,” said Paddy Ashdown, the former Lib Dem leader. “I didn’t think they would stick with us, frankly.”

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