The Conservatives will “slaughter” Labour under Jeremy Corbyn in the next election, the former business secretary Sir Vince Cable has said amid a Liberal Democrat split on how to deal with the rival party’s new leader.
Speaking at a fringe event at the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth on Sunday, Cable said he did not mean his comments to be vindictive: “I have dealt with Corbyn and [shadow chancellor John] McDonnell over the years and they are perfectly agreeable as individuals… but they are not electable. They’re just not.”
Cable said the Conservatives were “waiting with their big-bore guns and there’s this ageing lion and they are waiting to open fire”.
“The Tories will slaughter them,” he said. “The Tories are absolutely ruthless, as we know to our cost, and they will slaughter them. And that’s the opportunity [for the Lib Dems]. And it’s not just an opportunity, it’s a responsibility, because the country desperately needs effective opposition.”
The Lib Dems opened their party conference with leader Tim Farron – who was elected to replace Nick Clegg in July – arguing that his party could replace Labour as the dominant party of the centre left in light of Corbyn’s landslide win in the Labour’s leadership election.
Despite having suffered near-wipeout at the general election, the Lib Dems are claiming to be optimistic about their chances of rebuilding support because Labour is taking a firm swing to the left under Corbyn.
Cable was speaking after he slapped down a suggestion by Farron that the Lib Dems could work with Corbyn in government.
Despite describing the Labour leader’s economic policies as “not credible”, Farron told the BBC’s Radio 5 Live that a coalition of the Liberal Democrats and a Corbyn-led Labour party would be possible and “down to the arithmetic” of a general election result.
However, Cable said the Lib Dems working with Corbyn would be inconceivable unless he did a “complete volte-face” on his economic policies of the past 30 years.
Farron has suggested that at least two Labour MPs had called him to discuss defecting to his party. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1, he said: “You can ask and it’s a number, but I think it would be unfair to them to go any further into that.” Pushed on whether it was fewer than two MPs, he said: “No, more than that.”
Farron first hinted that Labour MPs were considering defecting to his party in an interview with the Evening Standard on Thursday. He said some senior Labour figures had called him, distraught at the party’s change in direction.
Questioned by the Standard on whether he had been contacted by any shadow cabinet figures, Farron said: “I couldn’t possibly comment. The bottom line is … people in the Labour party need to understand they can have conversations with me, which may or may not be conclusive, which will remain totally between me and them.”
Asked about possible defections from the Labour party on Pienaar’s Politics on BBC 5 Live, Farron said: “I certainly don’t expect anything imminently. My job is not to be a home wrecker to the Labour party.” The Lib Dem leader added that everything was unpredictable and no one could have foreseen 28 Labour MPs would join the SDP in 1981.
Labour MPs, including John Woodcock, chairman of the moderate Progress group, have rubbished the idea that any centrists would cross the floor.
Woodcock told the Guardian that he had no doubt that Farron was not telling the truth about the possible defections. “I think he is the last person my colleagues would confide in if they were distressed about the direction of the Labour party,” he said.
Despite Farron’s comments, peer and former Lib Dem MP Lady Tonge told the Sunday Times that she was considering defecting to Labour because Corbyn’s honest politics were “a breath of fresh air”, claiming that lots of Lib Dems were thinking of doing the same.
Tonge, a former MP for Richmond Park, is still a Lib Dem party member but quit the parliamentary group in 2012 after refusing to apologise for saying Israel “is not going to be there for ever”
Before the Lib Dem conference, Cable – who defected from the Labour party to the SDP – said Labour moderates should unite with the Lib Dems to create a new political force on the centre left. He even suggested an “avalanche” of Labour MPs could split off and join together with his party.
Farron dismissed Cable’s comments, saying: “We’ve got the Liberal Democrats, why would we create a new party?”
Farron told Marr on BBC1: “My sense is there are liberals in other parties who are not yet Liberal Democrats. People in the Labour party and actually there are many people in the Conservatives who think that David Cameron and George Osborne are attacking workers is a terrible thing to do and think that risking Britain’s relevance and prosperity by taking us out of the European Union is a terrible thing to do. And I want to reach out to those people.”
This article was written by Frances Perraudin and Rowena Mason, for theguardian.com on Sunday 20th September 2015 12.20 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010