The “toxic” fall-out of the Brexit referendum is fuelling the rise of the populist right in Britain, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable has warned.
In his keynote speech to his party’s spring conference in Southport, Sir Vince said the divide opened up by the June 2016 vote had left the country mired in a “protracted, non-violent civil war”.
He strongly criticised the “poisonous rhetoric” of the Brexiteers – including Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere” jibe – which, he said, was only exacerbating the divisions.
He also made a brief reference to Gibraltar, adding: “The Gibraltarian Government is afraid that their people – our people, British citizens – will be sacrificial pawns in this needless rush for the EU exit door.”
Sir Vince appealed to critics of Brexit to unite behind the Lib Dems’ call for a second referendum once the terms of the final deal were known.
With the Government divided and confused over what it wanted to achieve in the negotiations, he said it was clear the EU would end up dictating the terms.
“This will, in turn, create the sense of victimhood Brexiteers crave – being under the European yoke,” he said.
“I would go so far as to say Britain is now mired in a protracted, non-violent civil war.”
“Allied to the poisonous rhetoric about ‘traitors’ and ‘saboteurs’, and what Theresa May calls ‘citizens of nowhere’, we have a toxic brew which fuels the populist right.”
“What a disgrace that the fool’s errand of Brexit embarked on to paper over cracks in the Conservative Party has resulted in hate crime on our streets.”
With an international trade war looming following Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminium imports to US, Sir Vince said the argument for an “exit from Brexit” had become even more compelling.
“There is no more eloquent testimony to the Government’s folly about trade, that at a time when the world is descending into trade war, they put more faith in the warmonger in Washington than they do in our friends and trade partners in Europe,” he said.
“It was never a good idea to leave the EU. To leave it now borders on extreme recklessness.”
He said that he wanted to see his party follow the example of the Canadian Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau to build to lead a “new groundswell for political renewal”.
“The Canadian liberals engaged all their registered supporters – their voters – as well as their members in leadership elections and candidate selection. They became a new party; a movement,” he said.
“Building on our own traditions, we must address how we in the Liberal Democrats can become a movement for those who are alienated by the Conservatives and Labour.”
“So as a party I want us to think big. To be as radical and forward-looking with our ambitions for the party as we are with our ideas and our policies.”