There is a 30 per cent chance Britain will end up staying in the European Union, self-styled “Brexit saboteur” Sir Vince Cable told businesses gathered in Cumbria.

The Liberal Democrat leader and outspoken critic of the Government’s handling of Brexit, also told business leaders who gathered at The Mintworks in Kendal yesterday, that he thought no-deal was a “bluff”, even though it may materialise as the default position if a deal agreeable to both Parliament and the EU was not struck in time.

Describing the position Britain faced itself in as an “embarrassment”, Sir Vince said it was 50-50 as to whether Theresa May’s current deal which is currently being kicked around the corridors of Westminster would get through Parliament.

And while he said Brexit would cause economic harm, and probably a recession, in the UK it would not be on the scale of the economic crisis of 2007-2008.

Sir Vince, and the Liberal Democrats have argued for a second referendum, or so-called “people’s vote”, hoping the public coming out in favour of making a U-turn.

Addressing around 60 invited business leaders from across south Cumbria at the Cumbria Chamber of Commerce hosted event, Sir Vince, said: “I think there’s a 30 per cent chance we finish up staying and a 20 per cent risk of a no-deal. There is a risk, but not massive. We think it is a bluff.

“It is 50-50 whether Theresa May’s deal will go ahead. But even if it does, we will spend the next two, maybe four, years arguing with the EU over the detail.”

On the economy, he said that the uncertainty caused by Brexit was holding business back, a position that was reflected in the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee downgrading of the UK’s economic forecast for 2019 from 1.7 per cent to 1.2 per cent growth.

“Businesses are not investing and there is very little ambitious investment,” he said.

“Stockpiling is keeping the economy going at the moment. It isn’t desperate, but we’re not going anywhere. Brexit is sucking the life out of the country.”

Sir Vince warned that there would be dire consequences for exporting businesses and the agricultural sector should Britain crash out of the EU without a deal.

“Farmers could end up having to slaughter a large amount of stock if they cannot sell it,” he said.

“It would be like the foot and mouth epidemic in terms of impact, but self-inflicted.

“On exports we will have to negotiate trading deals with countries that currently have deals with the EU, such as Japan and South Korea. Deals that are not ready and won’t be for some time.

“It will be a killer and it is just a case of incompetence.”

On the flip side he said that there could be positive from a deal with the EU for some sectors, while UK businesses could benefit being free of EU procurement rules.

“It could mean that local companies could be favoured over others when it comes to procurement, and that there will be some freedoms you don’t get at the moment.”

But Sir Vince – who also took questions on what could be done to ensure giants such as Facebook, Google and Apple paid their fair share of tax – said Brexit was distracting the Government from important decisions affecting the UK.

“There are big decisions to be made on long-term care, our town centres, training and apprenticeships to make sure we have skilled people, but they’re all waiting because of Brexit,” he said.

And he revealed that discussions were taking place with groups of MPs from other political parties on forming a “confederation” to continue the fight against Brexit.

“There are people sneaking in to my office for a chat,” he said.

Expanding on the point, fellow Liberal Democrat and Westmorland and Lonsdale MP Tim Farron, said: “If Article 50 is pushed back and there is, say, a 12-month extension, things may happen quickly. 

“Who knows where that will lead,” he added, hinting it could turn in to a bigger political party.

Rob Johnston, chief executive of Cumbria Chamber of Commerce, which is providing businesses with guidance on how to prepare for Brexit – deal or no-deal – revealed that only 19 per cent of its members were positive about it.

“It is difficult for all of us, even those who are paid for a living to try and understand this,” he added.