Lib Dem Conference Diary

Chris Huhne shuns his party's radical image but Vince Cable's "mansion tax" goes down well

The Liberal Democrats may cultivate an image as the most daring of the main parties, but it's not one that their home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, chose to live up to today. At a fringe meeting I chaired this afternoon on the police and public trust, Huhne confessed that he had little time for protest and that his last demo had been the rather tame Police Federation march over pay. Delegates nostalgic for the days when Charles Kennedy addressed anti-war marches were distinctly unimpressed.

Huhne did manage to make an early bid for the Guardian's vote at the next election. He urged delegates to shun papers such as the Sun and the Daily Mail, which lived off crime scare stories, in favour of the "honest" Guardian. No doubt Huhne, who penned an economics column for the paper before entering politics, was impressed by the rave review his former employers gave Nick Clegg today. But Huhne's colleague Vince Cable, who writes a column for the Mail on Sunday, is unlikely to share his disdain for Associated Newspapers.

All eyes were on Cable in the conference hall today as he unveiled the party's new "mansion tax" on properties over £1m. Lib Dem activists were satisfied that Saint Vince had demolished David Cameron's claim that there was barely a "cigarette paper" between them and the Conservatives. But Cable's attempt to sell the policy to a sceptical public wasn't helped by the Lib Dems' own Ed Davey, who in a TV interview was unable to say what the measure meant for the party's proposed local income tax.

Could the party that claims John Stuart Mill as an intellectual ancestor yet come to the defence of smokers' rights? A surprising number of delegates declared their support for the artist David Hockney's campaign to introduce smoking rooms in pubs and bars. One activist hoped that Charles Kennedy, who flouted the ban on a train in 2007, would reverse party policy on the subject in the comeback he refuses to rule out.

Quote of the Day: "Dirty, cheating bastards." Chris Davies MEP slams EU expenses abusers from the podium

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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