Clegg must give a straight answer

Hints are not enough -- the Liberal Democrats must clarify their position on a power-sharing agreeme

Quite the centre of attention yesterday, Nick Clegg moved today to make his voice heard amid the cacophony, writing an article in the Times, and declaring on Radio 4's Today programme that "I'm not a kingmaker . . . The people are the kingmakers."

Yesterday's speculation centred on what the party would do in the event of a hung parliament -- something our Leader this week calls on the Liberal Democrat leader to clarify.

But did he clarify anything at all?

Ostensibly, he remains committed to the position of "equidistance" from both parties, established before Christmas. His Times piece, along with the usual Lib Dem fodder that a vote for them is not wasted, shows a real -- and probably valid -- edgy feeling that the very public attempts by both Cameron and Brown to align themselves with the Lib Dems could remove a portion of their vote.

But what about the question on everyone's lips: Where would the Lib Dems' alliances lie if a power-sharing agreement became necessary? Despite the fighting talk that "the Liberal Democrats are not for sale", Clegg remains frustratingly reticent, writing:

We will respect the will of the public. The voters are in charge and the decision is theirs. If voters decide that no party deserves an overall majority, then self-evidently the party with the strongest mandate will have a moral right to be the first to seek to govern on its own or, if it chooses, to seek alliances with other parties.

Come on, Nick. This is spectacularly vague -- as I pointed out yesterday, it all depends on how you define the will of the public.

His second point is that, in the event of a hung parliament, the actions of the Lib Dems will be governed by their commitment to four central principles: fair taxes, a fair start for children (with smaller class sizes and a "pupil premium" favouring poorer children), a sustainable economy, and clean politics.

But hang on a minute -- aren't some of these goals completely incompatible with those of the Tories? The fair-tax proposal centres on raising the point at which people start paying income tax to £10,000, by increasing taxes on the rich. This doesn't sound like a great fit with cuts to inheritance tax that would enrich the country's wealthiest 3,000 estates.

And on cleaning up politics, Clegg says he wants to "stop tax avoiders from standing for parliament, sitting in the House of Lords or donating to political parties". I can't help but wonder whether this sounds a little pointed, given the dubious tax status of Lord Ashcroft, Conservative peer and donor extraordinaire.

As my colleague James Macintyre suggests in his fantasy politics piece in this week's magazine, Labour is the more natural ally for the Lib Dems. Clegg's comments today imply that he feels the same way -- on the Today programme, asked if this was a "centre-left agenda", he replied: "It's a fair agenda, yes." In yet another tantalising hint, he said of the Tories: "At the moment, of course, the differences are more striking than the synthetic similarities."

From a political perspective, perhaps it is astute -- necessary, even -- for Clegg to hedge his bets, refusing to publicly rule out a union with the Conservative Party now in case the Lib Dems come to regret it later. But, as he wrote today: "In the event of a hung parliament, the British people also deserve to know how the Liberal Democrats will respond."

Everything Clegg has said today implies that a Lib-Lab pact is more likely than a Conservative one. Now he must come out and say so.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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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.