Why the Lib Dems should not threaten to block the boundary changes

It only encourages Tory and Labour MPs to rebel against Lords reform.

Last week, Simon Hughes said that Nick Clegg's outgoing director of strategy, Richard Reeves, was wrong to warn that the Lib Dems could block the boundary changes if the Tories failed to support House of Lords reform. But on the Today programme this morning, the Lib Dem deputy leader made the connection himself. He told John Humphrys:

We're clear you can’t have a deal broken by one side without consequences, there would be consequences if they broke it ... The one thing that is obvious that the Tories desperately want is the Boundary Commission proposals to go through.

The Lib Dems' anger is not unreasonable. One reason that so many (91) Tory MPs rebelled last night is that they were unsure where David Cameron actually stood on the issue. The Prime Minister, in common with William Hague, the man charged with talking the rebels round, has rarely appeared convinced of the need for reform. To many Tory MPs, this lack of conviction was an invitation to rebellion.

But there are two good reasons why Hughes and others should avoid linking Lords reform to the boundary changes. The first is that it is seen as an act of bad faith by Tory MPs. It was the AV referendum that was the quid pro quo for the changes, not Lords reform. The second is that it encourages Labour MPs to rebel in the hope that the boundary reforms, which will disadvantage their party more than any other, could yet be derailed.

If the Lib Dems want to secure Lords reform, as all democrats should, the best thing they can do is to continue to make the principled case for an elected second chamber better able to constrain an overmighty executive.

Nick Clegg sits in the royal box during the men's singles final at Wimbledon. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.