The Lib Dems need to decide what they really stand for

After Cable's intervention, the party needs to resolve its policy differences.

Oh dear, there’s a bit of a barney going on over here in the Lib Dems. Over the weekend, Vince Cable made some mildly ambitious comments alluding to the fact that should a vacancy ever arise (and should he be given the opportunity), he probably could make a half decent fist of running the Lib Dems. He’s probably right, too.

Now I think Vince is at that stage of his career when he more often than not takes the view, "stuff it, I’ll say what I think", which is a pleasant change from the norm. I seem to remember Ken Clarke making similar noises a few years back, pointing out the lunacy of trying to pretend you had no ambitions to lead your party. But predictably, many in the media  - and the Conservative Party - have jumped on this as the start of a Lib Dem civil war as Vince mounts an "attack" on Nick. "Of course he knew what he was doing", goes the cry, "he’s an experienced politician and he understands ‘the code".

This has the potential to be especially problematic for the Lib Dems, as the party wrestles to find its soul. This is often poorly defined as left vs. right, social liberals vs. Orange Bookers (Vince is usually placed in the former camp, with folk conveniently forgetting he contributed a chapter to The Orange Book), or even grassroots vs. parliamentary party. Of course, none of these descriptions truly fit.

But it does expose the need in the party to start resolving some of its positions, defining firm policy, and preparing for 2015. The differentiation strategy may have kicked off in June 2011, but I’m not convinced many people have noticed. Without this, the party will lack direction, and the discontent will manifest itself in questions over the leadership. The party is undoubtedly split over this. A poll on my own blog had a tiny majority for a change in leader before 2015, a larger Lib Dem Voice poll went the other way (no doubt aided by the question essentially being framed as, "do you agree with Lembit that we need a new leader?") And as things stand, whenever this issue comes up and someone expresses any ambition in the future, vitriol will be poured on their head from a large, internally held, bucket.

So starting with the party conference in September, we must formulate and agree some firm policy agendas. This, more than anything else, will tell us who we think the right person to present those policies to the electorate is – Nick or someone else. An open debate about the policies and philosophy we wish to present to the world is the first step down that road. And then we can concentrate on doing the important stuff. Arguing over whether our senior politicians have the right express ambition or not seems like a bit of a side issue. However much fun it may be ...

Nick Clegg's leadership is under growing criticism from Liberal Democrat members. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.