“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.
Cable says it will be “spectacular” if the Lib Dems beat Labour in vote share but does not want to get carried away. “People have been disappointed before.”
Change UK had hoped to see more defections to keep up the momentum it had at its launch. But instead the moves have gone the other way.
Its lead MEP candidate in Scotland defected to the Lib Dems and encouraged others to follow. Julie Girling, the Change UK MEP first elected as a Tory, declared the Lib Dems were “clearly the strongest Remain party” following the local elections.
Gus O’Donnell, the country’s former most senior civil servant, said he will vote for the Lib Dems. As has Andrew Cooper, David Cameron’s former chief pollster, and Labour peer Michael Cashman. Lord Heseltine, the pro-EU former Tory deputy prime minister, had the party whip suspended after revealing he would vote for Cable.
The Evening Standard, edited by former Tory chancellor George Osborne, said the failure of Change UK to become a “single issue Remain Party” had “left the door open” to the Lib Dems. “We wish them well,” the paper declared.
The only live debate during the campaign, hosted by The Daily Telegraph, was between Farage and Cable after Allen’s attempt to debate head-to-head with The Brexit Party leader had been rebuffed.
Catherine Bearder, the current sole Lib Dem MEP, puts her party’s poll boost down to its organisational capabilities and institutional experience.
“We have the ground troops and party infrastructure to run an election campaign, Change UK do not,” she says. “It was a poor misjudgment by them not to approach us.
“We also have just had very good local election results which means the public is familiar with our brand and look as if they are going to vote for us again.
“Finally we have been very clear what we stand for with our unequivocal stance on stopping Brexit. There is no space in this election for nuance and I get the feeling that people don’t know what Change UK stands for.”
Change UK’s campaign was beset by awkward PR moves, including widespread mockery of its name, barcode-style logo and less than vibrant battle bus.
One Change UK MEP candidate admitted the party’s campaign had “not been slick and problem-free” and conceded the Lib Dems had “used their well honed squeeze message to get Remainers to vote tactically for them”.
But they argued Change UK’s campaign was “remarkable” given the short time it had to prepare. The party had no voter ID records, no ground operation and a staff of only a dozen.
Much of the criticism, they said, was aimed at the party’s PR not its substance.
“If the Lib Dems were the answer we would have seen it earlier - they are a vehicle for protest not wholesale change,” the candidate added. “A big question for me is why they are still only on 16% when there is a 50-60% remain vote out there?”
“I hope Change UK survives this - if people genuinely want a different politics and some kind of alternative to populist or nationalist movements then I think it’s dangerous to write Change UK off after one very and unavoidably hurried campaign,” they added.
Ollie Middleton, a Change UK MEP candidate in the South West, also rejected the criticism. “Even getting 5% of the vote nationally would be a really good result for a party that’s only two months old,” he said.
“In many ways we are punching above our weight. We’ve got 100,000 supporters, I think 30,000 of which we have gained during these elections.”
Middleton, 24, who previously stood for Labour as a parliamentary candidate, said he expected the party to see Change UK MEPs elected on Thursday.
But he said the “priority” was “ensuring the aggregated Remain vote is higher than that of the Brexit Party vote”.
Cable, while clearly satisfied that his party had seen off the threat of destruction, also sees the value in Change UK surviving.
“We are on the same side of the argument. They’ve still got 11 MPs. We want to continue to work with them. And in the big battle about getting Brexit stopped we need allies in parliament,” he says.
The Brexit Party, he predicts, will claim to be the “big winners” of the election because there are “several Remain parties”.
“Do you treat the Labour Party as a Remain party or a Leave party? None of us know,” he adds.
And while Lib Dem activists waved British and EU flags at their rally - “it’s just like the old days,” grinned one - across town Farage walked on stage to actual fireworks.
Cable, 76, is on his way out as leader having promised before the current lift in mood to step down after the elections.
He says it is “flattering” when people now suggest he stick around longer but there is already a “succession plan” in place.
“I wanted to hand over the party when it was in a good optimistic state and it is. I feel that we are handing over at exactly the right time,” he says.
A new leader is expected to be in place at some point in July in time to give them a good run-up to the party conference season.
No one has officially declared their candidacy, but deputy leader Jo Swinson and Kingston and Surbiton MP Ed Davey, both former coalition ministers, are seen as the two likely rivals. Layla Moran, who had been tipped, has already dropped out of the race.
Cable does not name names, but he says he has “absolute confidence in either” candidate.
“They are high quality people who did very good work in government with me, and will take the party on to the next stage. I am not picking winners but they are both very good. There might be other people that emerge.”
Cable was elected unopposed as leader in 2017. “It wasn’t a job people were desperate to do at that point,” he laughs. This time he says it is “important it is contested”.
“We are on the side of the angels on the Europe debate,” Cable says. “This is just the beginning. It’s not the end.”