Sir Vince Cable has urged Liberal Democrat members to back his bid to turn the party into a centrist “movement”.
On the first day of the Lib Dems’ conference in Brighton, Sir Vince held a private meeting with around 500 members to address their concerns about his proposed overhaul of party structures.
The 75-year-old wants to widen the Lib Dem membership with a new class of supporters who can join the party for free and would be allowed to vote in future leadership contests.
Sir Vince also wants to change Lib Dem rules to allow non-MPs to stand for leader.
He has promised to stand down as leader himself once Brexit is “resolved or stopped” and his new party rules are in place.
On Saturday, Sir Vince spoke to activists at a member-only event about his plans alongside other major party figures including former leader Lord Ashdown.
Sir Vince was said to have heard members’ worries about “entryism” into the party amid a “mixture of positivity and scepticism” about the proposals within the room.
The party’s leadership were also accused by some present of having “jumped the gun” by already allowing possible new supporters to “pre-register” on the Lib Dem website.
Lib Dem sources revealed 10,000 people had already registered their interest in this way.
Speaking to Sky News after fielding questions from members, Sir Vince admitted the party would need to be “careful” about entryism – a charge levelled at left-wing group Momentum’s involvement in Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s membership.
“I’ve used the expression ‘when you open the windows, you let a few flies in but that’s not an argument for keeping the windows shut’,” Sir Vince said.
“We want to be an open, inclusive movement. There are hundreds of thousands, millions of people out there who are frightened, alarmed, worried about what’s happening in British politics, the extremes of right and left, problems around Brexit.
“We’re there and we want to welcome people who have the same values as we do.”
Sir Vince’s plans for the Lib Dems come as former Labour prime minister Tony Blair admitted forming a new centrist party in the UK “may be impossible”.
“At the moment there are people in the Tory party and the Labour Party who are hanging in there, maybe out of tribal loyalty, maybe in a hope they can turn things around,” Sir Vince added.
“Growing numbers of them are giving up and we’ll see in the next few months what happens.”
The Lib Dem leader was later due to lead a rally at the Brighton conference alongside other prominent party figures such as Sir Ed Davey, the Kingston and Surbiton MP and former cabinet minister.
Sir Ed claimed “two big earthquakes” are primed to hit British politics, the “economic earthquake of Brexit” and the possibility of either or both Labour and the Tories suffering a rupture within their ranks.
“With those two major issues, there’s got to be a chance a lot of people will say ‘I’m politically homeless’ for either reason,” he told Sky News.
“We have to show we’re a home for the politically homeless and one of the ways of doing that is to reform the party so new members can get active more quickly.”
Sir Ed claimed he “actually would go further” than his party leader in some of Sir Vince’s proposed reforms.
He also dismissed fears from some Lib Dems the shake-up of leadership rules could leave the party in a situation such as Labour, where Mr Corbyn is backed overwhelmingly by its membership but not among its MPs.
Sir Ed stressed possible leadership candidates from outside parliament would still have to be shortlisted by MPs or a wider party process, as he claimed Labour MPs had suffered a “moment of madness” in first nominating Mr Corbyn for the leadership in 2015.
“They must have nightmares about it,” Sir Ed said.
“Their party that they’ve lived and served and worked for. I know how passionate one feels about the party you belong to, and some of them have ruined it, possibly fatally.”