Is Nick Clegg Britain’s Moqtada al-Sadr?

Drawing a comparison between the Iraqi and UK elections.

The Conservatives have been scaremongering about a hung parliament again, claiming it will lead to "paralysis at the top", a "lack of accountability" and a "political stitch-up". Hey, why stop there? Why not also claim that a hung parliament will lead to pestilence, plague and biblical Armageddon?

I happen to agree with the calmer analysis produced by Peter Riddell of the Times. Hung parliaments, he argues, can be "made to work" and can produce "effective" coalitions. He points out:

Many countries most highly rated for good government, such as Germany, New Zealand and the Scandinavian nations, have multiparty rule.

One country where a hung parliament hasn't, however, been good for business or for the nation as a whole is the one we recently (and illegally) invaded -- Iraq. And, reading Patrick Cockburn's piece on the "Iraq election row" in the Independent today, I couldn't help but notice the rather odd parallels between the Iraqi parliamentary elections and our own (minus, of course, the Mesopotamian violence, bloodshed, corruption, vote-rigging and sectarian hatreds).

A bit of background: the 7 March parliamentary election in Iraq produced a hung parliament in Baghdad, with no single party or grouping securing a majority. The incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki, has been described as "difficult to deal with, quick-tempered and deeply suspicious of others". Who does that remind you of?

Right now, he is trying to cling on to power despite coming second in terms of share of the vote, if not seats. To stay in office, however, his governing State of Law party needs the support of its ideological and sectarian allies in the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), which came third in both seats and votes. But guess what? The anti-American Shia faction led by the "firebrand" cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is the single largest party in the INA, and the Sadrists, says Cockburn, "are adamant that Mr Maliki step down as prime minister".

So is Nick Clegg -- having said at the weekend, "You can't have Gordon Brown squatting in No 10" -- Britain's Moqtada al-Sadr?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.