May’s local elections are a chance for the public to pass a verdict on the government’s handling of Brexit, Sir Vince Cable has said.
The Liberal Democrat leader also urged voters to send a message to the Conservatives over “ideological” and “unnecessary” cuts to public services such as the police.
Launching his party’s local elections campaign, the former business secretary added his party’s performance in recent by-elections was a “well-kept secret” and suggested it was doing twice as well as the national polls suggested.
The Lib Dems have consistently polled in single figures since the turn of the year.
Former leader Sir Nick Clegg got 13% in the 2014 elections, while there has been speculation that Lib Dem-controlled Sutton Council could be vulnerable.
Addressing party activists at Watford’s Vicarage Road stadium, Sir Vince said: “These are local elections, they are about getting good local representatives, but it’s also going to be an opportunity to pass a verdict on the way in which the government is handling the Brexit negotiations.”
May’s poll will be the last opportunity many EU nationals will have to vote, Sir Vince said, with the Lib Dems sending out election messages in 17 languages to encourage the European vote.
He went on to accuse the government of “a form of capitulation” and caving in on almost all its Brexit negotiating positions.
It was already accepted that Brexit would mean a reduction in access to European markets, a loss of access for poorer parts of the UK to regional funding and reduced reciprocal rights for UK and EU citizens, the Lib Dem leader said.
“This is a very negative development and actually the Liberal Democrats are the only party which is warning about the dangers which this current Brexit trajectory poses,” Sir Vince said.
“We want to make it clear that this is one of the things on which these local elections will be fought, and I’m pretty confident that we’re in exactly the right position politically.”
In a wide-ranging speech, Sir Vince highlighted figures that suggested London recently had a higher murder rate than New York.
He said the consequences of severe cuts to the police “are all too predictable”, with crime now back on the agenda and spreading to more prosperous parts of London.
“What is happening, in effect, is that because of police cuts, policing is being reduced to a kind of ‘blue light’ service, with police rushing from one incident to another,” he said.
“They don’t have the resources to support their safer neighbourhood teams and they’re not embedded in the communities, they don’t get the intelligence, the linkages with local communities, they can’t do the work heading off the development of gang conflict.”
The Lib Dem leader also highlighted cuts to education, health and social care, adding: “They’re not necessary now.
“We’ve had, of course, a financial crisis we’ve had to deal with in government, but these cuts are now ideologically driven, they’re unnecessary, they’re excessive, and people can make a political statement by opposing them and supporting us in local elections.”
He acknowledged the party was facing challenges in areas where it was defending its control of councils, such as Sutton, Eastleigh and South Lakeland.
But he also insisted the party would be looking to win seats and increase its number of councillors.
Since the general election the Lib Dems have gained 15 council seats, while the average results suggested the party was doing twice as well as public opinion polls suggested, Sir Vince said.
“It’s worth remembering that this country has a sort of well-kept secret, which is what’s been happening pretty much every Thursday over the last year since the general election,” he said.
“Because we’ve been contesting elections, some of them in Labour-facing areas, some Conservative-facing areas, some Remain, some Leave, all very different.
“But there’s a consistent story that’s emerged throughout all of that time, and it’s largely unreported, that the Lib Dems are much the strongest of the three parties when it comes to these real contests.”