CommentPlus: pick of the papers

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. Nick Clegg held on in a gripping debate. This will go to the wire (Guardian)

David Cameron and Gordon Brown both went up a gear in last night's televised debate, says Martin Kettle, but Nick Clegg impressively consolidated his performance. TheLib Dems are in it to the finish.

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2. Voters have waited for this for years (Times)

Policies and ties don't matter, argues David Aaronovitch. Whether this perception is accurate or not, Clegg represents the break from stale two-party politics that many crave.

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3. The forces blocking British democracy (Independent)

Cameron is concealing his real agenda of tax cuts for the rich and lower public spending, because the polling and focus groups indicate that the public will loathe it. That's why his performances in this campaign are so stilted, says Johann Hari.

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4. Britain's election debate is rewriting the political rules (Financial Times)

No-one knows what the outcome of the election will be, says Philip Stephens. The campaign is now about what voters think of politics and politicians.

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5. Who's afraid of a big bad hung Parliament? (Times)

Only in Britain are coalition or minority governments seen as dangerous. Peter Riddell advises that we look abroad to see how they can work.

6. Being patriotic doesn't make you a fascist (Daily Telegraph)

Billy Bragg -- fresh from a clash with a BNP member in Barking -- discusses the rise of the far right. Without its own parliament, it is no wonder that England's nationalism has been hijacked.

7. Danger lurks everywhere. Let the pilots handle ash (Guardian)

Simon Jenkins criticises the response to the volcanic ash cloud. As with terrorism, swine flu and now aviation, the scientists offer absolutes rather than probabilities and the authorities panic.

8. The sad return of state worship (Financial Times)

British liberties have been steadily eroded by recent governments, writes Samuel Brittan, drawing a link between economic policy and issues of personal freedom.

9. I have a future. So many Afghans my age don't (Times)

As the leaders last night debated foreign affairs, a young refugee, Hewod Azizjan, reflects on the conflict as seen from Britain and his home country.

10. Bolivia's fight for survival can help save democracy too (Guardian)

Naomi Klein writes from the world climate change summit in Bolvia. This people's summit is a radical, transformative response to the failure of the Copenhagen club, that could save our democracy as well as our warming planet.

 

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.