“Look around the world and consider the health of Liberal Democrats,” Theresa May said on Tuesday as she made her final doomed plea to MPs to back her Brexit deal.
It was a slip of the tongue that delighted Lib Dem activists gathered in a central-London riverside bar less than half a mile to the east for the party’s final European election rally.
Speaking from the stage surrounded by yellow ‘Stop Brexit’ banners, Vince Cable recalled that just one month ago he was constantly asked to explain how the Lib Dems could be “anything other than completely humiliated by Change UK”.
But he told the buoyant crowd the “mood has changed massively in our direction”. Votes are yet to be counted. But he has a point.
As voters go to the polls, the Lib Dems look to have won the fight for the pro-Remain party throne.
At the beginning of May, the party had its best local election results in years, gaining 703 councillors and securing control of 18 councils.
Ahead of Thursday’s MEP elections, a YouGov poll for The Times showed the Lib Dems had catapulted into second place on 19% – behind Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party on 37%.
Labour had dropped to third on 13% with the Greens close behind 12%. The Conservatives were on a tragic 7% and Change UK were on just 4%.
Back in April, Change UK, formed by The Independent Group (TIG) of MPs and now led by Heidi Allen, was breathing down Cable’s neck.
An internal memo leaked to the Daily Mail suggested the fledgling party’s goal was to destroy the Lib Dems. “No mergers, pacts or alliances,” it advised.
Sarah Wollaston, the ex-Tory Change UK MP, was asked by the Parliamentary Review this week why she did not defect to Cable’s party. “At the time we set up, we didn’t think there was any evidence that the Lib Dems were a viable answer,” she said.
But the tables have turned. “They have more than turned,” Vince Cable says, speaking to HuffPost UK moments after coming off stage. “They were wrong. They got it wrong. Embarrassingly wrong,” he says.
While Cable, who is due to step down, is going out on a high, Allen offered to resign as leader following after a row over whether the party should endorse tactical voting.
The Lib Dems currently have just one MEP. But one senior party official said internal expectations are now that its contingent will increase to double figures. Read more