How long will this coalition last?

The Lib Dems need to avoid being steamrollered by their Tory partners.

In my recent, much-discussed row with the Liberal Democrats' Simon Hughes on BBC1's Question Time, I made the mistake of betting on-air that his party's coalition with the Conservatives would collapse within two years. In the ensuing days, as I watched the Cameron-Clegg affair bloom and prosper, and the blissful honeymoon continue, I worried that Hughes might be proved right and this coalition government might survive for the full five years.

But in recent days, my doubts have returned. The Tories have repeatedly reminded their Lib Dem allies that they are in charge, and that the tail does not wag this particular dog. Take yesterday's Queen's Speech.

Here's how today's Times begins its coverage of the speech:

David Cameron tilted the coalition away from the Liberal Democrats with a Queen's Speech that defined tax, immigration and police reform on Conservative terms.

In the main article, Roland Watson, Francis Elliott and Sam Coates highlight

a commitment to lower taxation, the first time since the coalition was formed that such a pledge has been made. Nick Clegg told the Times last week that the government's priority was to rebalance the tax burden, not to reduce it. Last week's coalition programme promised "more competitive, simpler, greener and fairer" tax, but no mention of lower taxation.

And here is the standfirst on the Guardian cover story:

Tory hostility to [electoral] reform could disrupt coalition

In the main article, Patrick Wintour says:

The Conservatives said . . . that the bill on AV would also contain measures to reduce the number of constituencies by as much as 10 per cent and to equalise their size -- a complex, controversial and time-consuming measure that will benefit the Tories.

The Lib Dems say the referendum can be held before the boundary review is complete as long as the legislation has been passed setting the constituency boundary review in train. But some senior Conservative sources were hinting the boundary review would have to be under way before the AV referendum could be staged, so delaying its date.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail's Tim Shipman writes:

Liberal Democrats and Tories are on collision course over plans to tear up the first-past-the-post election system.

The government published plans yesterday for a bill to hold a referendum on bringing in the Alternative Vote system.

But there was immediate disagreement between the coalition partners over when the public will have their say.

. . . Senior Lib Dems fear that if there is a delay, any nationwide vote on electoral reform would simply be seen as a referendum on the government itself, with voters punishing them at the ballot box.

But Tories declared next May "much too soon" for a referendum on electoral reform, voicing the view that it will not be held before autumn 2011 and "could be later than that".

The Tories are playing a dangerous game. Electoral reform has long been the Holy Grail for Liberal Democrats. Indeed, it was Cameron's unexpected concession of a referendum on AV, on the evening of Monday 10 May, that helped him -- finally! -- seal the deal with Clegg.

It would have been impossible for the Lib Dems to join a coalition with the Tories without the referendum promise. And if, in the coming months, they believe that their Conservative partners are intent on dragging their feet and delaying a vote on electoral reform, the Lib Dems may start looking for the exit. Otherwise, they risk being steamrollered by the Tories -- both in office and at the next, first-past-the-post general election.

On a related note, and as today's Independent reminds us, I was amused to see Simon Hughes, of all people, not quite on board the Cleggeron project in the Commons yesterday:

Simon Hughes, a Liberal Democrat backbencher on the left of the party, asked the Prime Minister a less-than-friendly question about housebuilding, but the significance was that Mr Hughes referred to "his" government -- Mr Cameron's, that is. The PM replied that he hoped Mr Hughes would come to regard it as "our" government.

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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

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