Nick Clegg: charlatan minor

The Deputy Prime Minister's speech on growth was empty waffle.

I have had emails from several readers asking me for my views on Nick Clegg's speech on growth. It was 2,460 words long and free of content. All in the week when my friend Polly Toynbee in her Guardian column yesterday called David Cameron "the great charlatan". I guess that makes Clegg "charlatan minor".

The speech followed what is becoming a common theme in declarations about the economy from Cameron, Osborne and Clegg.

First, blame Labour for the mess. "They left us well and truly in the red." And then emphasise how large interest payments are and give examples of what alternatives the money could have been spent on. "We could buy a new Chinook helicopter every day," he said -- although why we would want to do that, he didn't make clear. He probably wants one to fly around the country in so he can avoid talking to people who want to question him on his various U-turns.

Second, claim that this is creating a crisis for our children and that morality is on their side. And ludicrously claim that what is going on is "theft", by emphasising only the liabilities side of the balance sheet while ignoring the asset side. From Clegg's speech:

There is a moral dimension to this question too. I have never understood those who say it's more "progressive" to delay tackling the deficit, so that we shuffle off responsibility for our debts to the next generation to deal with. This strikes me as little short of intergenerational theft. It is the equivalent of loading up our credit card with debt and then expecting our kids to pay it off.

Yet he fails to mention that our kids also have to suffer from an intergenerational transfer of assets including roads, hospitals, airports, schools, public health and our entire infrastructure.

Third, say there is no alternative to the the government's fiscal plans and repeat several times how sincere and determined the government is to see this thing through to the end. For example: "The coalition government is determined to eliminate the deficit," and, "We are determined on our course of action to tackle the deficit," plus "As a government, we are determined to get this right". Really?

Fourth, trot out as many mindless platitudes as possible that sound good but don't actually mean anything. Waffle is the watchword.

"We seek nothing less than a new model of sustainable growth."

"We are in government to lay the foundations for a better, stronger economy. People want their politicians to be leaders, not accountants."

"A sound economy is built on diverse, strong regions and diverse, strong sectors".

"We need, in short, a grown-up approach to growth, based on hard-headed analysis -- in place of the "pick-and-mix" approach that has characterised too much recent government activity, grabbing at instant initiatives rather than taking the big decisions that really count."

I have no clue what that means.

Finally, talk in broad terms only and provide no concrete proposals. Clegg even went as far as to say: "I do not think we should apologise for treating this issue with the utmost seriousness." We would prefer you to have a plan -- any plan -- than this empty-headed nonsense.

"We need to be clear about the fundamental factors that drive economy growth; clear about the areas in which government can effectively play a role; and clear about the interventions than make the most difference."

Never fear, by Budget time at the end of March they will have worked all that out! Believe that and you will believe anything.

Clegg claimed there are "four important steps needed to take to build a new economy":

* Weaning ourselves off debt-financed growth, and onto investment-led prosperity;
* Investing in the 'hard' infrastructure that underpins growth, such as transport;
* Cultivating the 'soft' infrastructure made up of knowledge, skills and education that businesses need;
* Balancing regions and sectors, instead of putting all our economic eggs in one basket.

OK, so we need to invest in the infrastructure and people and move to a new model of growth which doesn't exist currently, plus do some stuff for the regions and manufacturing and help chicken farmers. And don't borrow but invest a lot.

And all of this by next Thursday. You must be joking.

David Blanchflower is economics editor of the New Statesman and professor of economics at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire

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Theresa May can play big fish with devolved nations - in the EU she's already a nobody

The PM may have more time for domestic meetings in future. 

Theresa May is sitting down with representatives from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on Monday to hear their concerns about Brexit. 

For the devolved nations, it is the first chance since the seismic vote in June to sit down at a table and talk to the Prime Minister together. 

May has reportedly offered them a "direct line" to Brexit secretary David Davis. It must be a nice change for her to be the big fish in the small pond, rather than the small fish in the big pond that everyone's already sick of. 

Because, when it comes to the EU, the roles of Westminster and other nations is reversed. 

Brexit was small potatoes on the menu of Theresa May’s first European Council summit. It may hurt British pride but the other 27 heads of state and government had far more pressing issues on their plate to worry about.

So, it was an awkward debut Council evening meal of lamb and figs for Prime Minister Theresa May and dinner was served with a large reality check.

As May was later asked at her press conference, why would anyone listen to someone who already has one foot out the door?

Britain is in limbo until it triggers article 50, the legal process taking it out of the EU. Until that happens, it will be largely and politiely ignored.

May’s moment to shine didn’t come until 1am. She spoke on Brexit for “five minutes maximum” and said “nothing revolutionary”, EU sources briefed later.

May basically did that break-up talk. The one where someone says they are leaving but “we can still be friends”. The one where you get a divorce but refuse to leave the house. 

It was greeted in the way such moments often are – with stony silence. Brexit won’t be seriously discussed until article 50 is triggered, and then the negotiations will be overseen by the European Commission, not the member states.

As became rapidly clear after the vote to leave and in sharp contrast to the UK government, the EU-27 was coordinated and prepared in its response to Brexit. That unity, as yet, shows no sign of cracking.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel later damned May with faint praise. She hadn’t said anything new but it was nice to hear it in person, she told reporters.

Merkel, as she often does, had a successful summit. She needed Council conclusions on migration that would reassure her skittish voters that the doors to Germany are no longer thrown wide open to migrants. Germany is one of the member states to have temporarily reintroduced border checks in the passport-free Schengen zone

The conclusions said that part of returning to Schengen as normal was “adjusting the temporary border controls to reflect the current needs”.

This code allows Merkel and her Danish allies to claim victory back home, while allowing Slovakia, which holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, enough of an excuse to insist it has not overseen the effective end of Schengen.

But Merkel’s migration worries did not provide hope for the British push for immigration controls with access to the single market. The Chancellor, and EU chiefs, have consistently said single market access is conditional on the free movement of people. So far this is a red line.

Everyone had discussed the EU’s latest responses to the migration crisis at a summit in Bratislava. Everyone apart from May. She was not invited to the post-Brexit meeting of the EU-27.

She tried to set down a marker, telling her counterparts that the UK wouldn’t just rubberstamp everything the EU-27 cooked up.

This was greeted with a polite, friendly silence. The EU-27 will continue to meet without Britain.

Francois Hollande told reporters that if May wanted a hard Brexit, she should expect hard negotiations.

Just the day before Alain Juppe, his likely rival in next year’s presidential election, had called for the UK border to be moved from Calais to Kent.

Hollande had to respond in kind and the Brussels summit gave him the handy platform to do so. But once inside the inner sanctum of the Justus Lipsius building, it was Syria he cared about. He’s enjoyed far more foreign than domestic policy success.

May had called for a “unified European response” to the Russian bombing of Aleppo. It was a break in style from David Cameron, who is not fondly remembered in Brussels for his habit of boasting to the news cameras he was ready to fight all night for Britain and striding purposefully into the European Council. 

Once safely behind closed doors, he would be far more conciliatory, before later claiming another triumph over the Eurocrats at a pumped-up press conference.

May could point to Council conclusions saying that all measures, including sanctions, were on the table if the Russian outrages continue. But her victory over countries such as Italy and Greece was only achieved thanks to support from France and Germany. 

The national success was also somewhat undermined by the news Russian warships were in the Channel, and that the Brexit talks might be in French.

But even warships couldn’t stop the British being upstaged by the Belgian French-speaking region of Wallonia. Its parliament had wielded an effective veto on Ceta, the EU-Canada trade deal.

Everyone had skin in this game. All the leaders, including May, had backed CETA, arguing the removal of almost all custom duties would boost trade the economy. Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel was forced to tell exasperated leaders he could not force one of Belgium’s seven parliaments to back CETA, or stop it wrecking seven years of painstaking work.

As the news broke that Canada’s trade minister Chrystia Freeland had burst into tears as she declared the deal dead, everyone – not the first time during the summit – completely forgot about Britain and its referendum.

Even as the British PM may be enjoying a power trip in her own domestic union of nations, on the international stage, she is increasingly becoming irrelevant. 

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.