Lib Dems '˜ready for a Labour split'

Reforms to the Liberal Democrats will make it easier for defectors from other parties to make the political leap, a senior Scottish MP has said.

Sir Vince Cable and his wife Rachel Smith arrive at their hotel in Brighton ahead of the Lib Dem party conference. Photograph: PA

Alistair Carmichael said plans to open up the Lib Dems to supporters and leadership candidates from outside the party could help encourage an “all or nothing” split in the Labour party to form a new force in the centre of British politics – mirroring the creation of his party 30 years ago. And he confirmed comments by Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, who said he had held conversations with as many as 18 Labour and Conservative MPs about their futures, saying he felt like an “agony aunt” to unhappy parliamentarians.

Asked about Cable’s comments, the Orkney and Shetland MP said: “I can think of some Scots who I speak to on a fairly regular basis ... the political dynamic is different because of the independence issue.

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“These discussions are delicate and sensitive ... we talk to anyone who’s got common sense and a view to the national interest.”

Carmichael added: “The Labour party in particular is in a very interesting place at the moment.

“I feel almost like a resident agony aunt, because people I know and have worked with for years are generally more likely to talk to me because they feel they can trust me more than they can trust people in their own party.”

Carmichael described the 1988 merger between the Social Democrats and the Liberal party after seven years of a formal alliance as a complicated, drawn-out process that could be avoided if the Lib Dems reformed their rules and were more open.

The merger failed to bring an immediate boost to the Lib Dems’ fortunes, but it did provide them with a charismatic and successful future leader in the shape of Charles Kennedy, who famously won the Ross, Cromarty and Skye constituency for the SDP aged just 23.

“The SDP failed when Roy Hattersley decided to stay in the Labour party as a sort of bridgehead for social democrats to cling on to and build on,” Carmichael said.

“The people I speak to feel that this time, if the decisive moment comes, there won’t be that bridgehead. It’ll be all or nothing.”

Voters will eventually give the Lib Dems credit for supporting a referendum on the terms of Brexit that could keep the UK in the EU, Carmichael argued.

“Vince, to his credit, has really been able to seize that agenda and give it some leadership at a time when other people in other parties, who might privately agree with us on that, frankly don’t have the political gumption to say it,” he said.

“When that idea gets the full momentum that I think it has the potential to have, that may well be the point when people give us the credit for having been the early adopters, the people who started pushing the snowball down the hill.”

He added: “For us as a party, we also have to be talking about other things, because there’s going to be a day when the Brexit debate runs out of road.

“You can see how that’s worked in Scotland – the government there has been constitutionally obsessive for years that they’ve allowed important public services to be neglected.”