Tory MPs have labelled as “wrong” and “unwise” comments made by Sir Vince Cable, that older Brexit voters were “driven by nostalgia”.
The Lib Dem leader said too many older people who voted Leave longed for a world where “faces were white”.
“(Sir Vince) should be trying to bring country together, not seeking to tear it apart,” cabinet minister Sajid Javid said.
Tory party chair Brandon Lewis said his comments were “rude” and “offensive”.
Speaking at his party’s spring conference, Sir Vince said a “nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink” had driven some older voters to Brexit.
“And it was their votes on one wet day in June which crushed the hopes and aspirations of young people for years to come,” he said.
Tory MEP Daniel Hannan said “calling 17.4 million people racists is unfair and unwise”. The deputy chairman of the conservatives, James Cleverly, said “not liking brown faces” was not the reason he voted Brexit.
The Lib Dems are campaigning for a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, which the government opposes.
Sir Vince told his audience in Southport: “I’ve myself been on a journey. I confess that my own initial reaction to the referendum was to think maybe there was little choice but to pursue Brexit,”
“I thought, you know, the public had voted to be poorer – well, that was their right.
“What changed my mind was the evidence that Brexit had overwhelmingly been the choice of the older generation.
“75% of under 25s voted to remain. But 70% of over 65s voted for Brexit,” he said.
‘Very, very white’
Sir Vince also took a swipe at his own party’s lack of diversity – it has had a lower proportion of non-white MPs and candidates than Labour or the Conservatives in recent years.
“Looking around the auditorium, we are very, very white,” he told the party faithful.
“We must prioritise making our party more ethnically diverse.”
The former business secretary went on to call the “vision of a Global Britain signing lots of new trade deals” being pursued by his one-time cabinet colleague Theresa May a “fraud”.
“Far from opening our arms to the world, we will be tearing up preferential trade deals we already have with 27 countries in the EU and 74 outside it,” he said.
“There is no more eloquent testimony to the government’s utter naivety about trade, that at a time when the world is descending into trade war, they put more faith in the Wild West warmonger in Washington and the bully of Beijing than they do in our established friends and trade partners in Europe.”
On the Labour Party, Sir Vince said that while the party had made a “few tentative steps towards sanity” it was still “strongly committed” to co-operating with the Conservatives to ensure Brexit goes through.
In doing so, he said, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is letting down the people he claims to be defending.
“You cannot speak up for the poor and be complicit in making the country poorer,” he said.