The Lib Dems' Hunt abstention is a miserable little compromise

If Clegg wants Hunt to be referred, he should vote in favour of the motion.

Nick Clegg's decision to order Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain from today's Commons vote on Jeremy Hunt is a significant moment in the short history of the coalition. With the exception of last year's vote on a DUP motion celebrating David Cameron's EU "veto", it is the first mass abstention by the Lib Dems while in government. Clegg's move was reportedly prompted by his fury at Cameron's refusal to refer Hunt to Alex Allan, the adviser on ministers' interests (the subject of the Labour motion), even after the Culture Secretary's dubious evidence to the Leveson inquiry. The Lib Dem abstention will not threaten the government's majority (although, in an indication of how seriously the Tories are taking the vote, Conservative MP Justin Tomlinson has been ordered to return from his honeymoon in Mauritius to vote) and the motion is, in any case, non-binding. But the act is rich with political symbolism. Confronted by Cameron's repeated failure to hold Hunt to account, the Lib Dems have reasserted their independence.

The Tories are still downplaying the significance of the move, with one aide noting that it is "a party political motion not government business". On the Today programme this morning, housing minister Grant Shapps said it was simply "a reminder that we have different perspectives on things." Conservative backbenchers, however, are proving less understanding and have already warned Clegg not to count on their support the next time that scandal befalls a Lib Dem cabinet minister (as it frequently does). One Tory MP described the move as "an act of war".

Labour will welcome another opportunity to exploit coalition discontent but many of the party's MPs will rightly denounce this as another "miserable little compromise" by Clegg. If the Lib Dems believe that Hunt should be referred to Allan, then they should simply vote in favour of the motion, not abstain. Once again, Clegg has said one thing (refer Hunt) and done another (abstained), the problem that has long dogged his leadership.

The defence proffered by his office is that he did not want to support a party (Labour) with a history of "cosy" relations with the Murdochs - the Lib Dems are proud of their status as the one major party never to fall under the spell of the Wizard of Oz. But this backwards-looking defence does not bear scrutiny. Labour is now led by a man who has repeatedly apologised for his failure to intervene earlier over phone-hacking and who led the charge against News International last summer. Another explanation put forward this morning is that the Lib Dems cannot vote with a party that "lied about" the Iraq war. Again, this defence makes no sense when one considers Miliband's early opposition to the war.

From a political perspective, Clegg's decision to abstain is the worst of all possible worlds. He will earn the ire of the Tories, whilst receiving no compensatory support from Labour. In the meantime, attention moves to the Leveson inquiry, where one Nicholas William Peter Clegg is appearing from 10am.

Nick Clegg has ordered Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on today's Commons vote on Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia