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.

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Free movement isn't free: the truth about EU immigration

The UK does not need to leave the single market to restrict European migration - it already can.

In the Brext negotiations, the government has unashamedly prioritised immigration control over the economy. The UK must leave the single market, ministers say, in order to restrict free movement. For decades, they lament, European immigration has been "uncontrolled", making it impossible to meet the government's target of reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year.

It's worth noting that non-EU immigration alone (which ministers can limit) remains more than ten times this level (owing to the economic benefits). But more importantly, liberals and conservatives alike talk of "free movement" as if it is entirely free - it isn't.

Though EU citizens are initially permitted to live in any member state, after three months they must prove that they are working (employed or self-employed), a registered student or have "sufficient resources" (savings or a pension) to support themselves and not be "a burden on the benefits system". Far from being unconditional, then, the right to free movement is highly qualified.

The irony is that the supposedly immigration-averse UK has never enforced these conditions. Even under Theresa May, the Home Office judged that the cost of recording entry and exit dates was too high. Since most EU migrants are employed (and contribute significantly more in taxes than they do in benefits), there was no economic incentive to do so.

For some Brexiteers, of course, a job is not adequate grounds for an immigrant to remain. But even beyond implementing existing law, there is potential for further reform of free movement - even within the single market.

As Nick Clegg recently noted, shortly after the referendum, "a number of senior EU figures" were exploring a possible trade-off: "a commitment by the UK to pursue the least economically disruptive Brexit by maintaining participation in the single market and customs union, in return for a commitment to the reform of freedom of movement, including an 'emergency brake' on unusually high levels of intra-EU immigration." Liechtenstein, a member of the single market, has recently imposed quotas on EU migrants.

Yet with some exceptions, these facts are rarely heard in British political debate. Many Labour MPs, like their Conservative counterparts, support single market withdrawal to end free movement. The unheard truth that it isn't "free" could yet lead the UK to commit an avoidable act of economic self-harm.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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