Would Clegg’s head be the price of a Lab-Lib coalition?

Shadow cabinet minister John Denham suggests that the Liberal Democrats would need a new leader.

This week brought the "revelation" that Nick Clegg insisted on Gordon Brown's head as the price of a Lab-Lib coalition but could Labour turn the tables on the Lib Dems at the next election?

Should Labour emerge as the single largest party in a hung parliament, many will want to force Clegg's departure before any coalition is formed. In an interview in the latest edition of Fabian Review, John Denham, the shadow communities secretary, suggests that Labour could not work with a Clegg-led Lib Dem party:

It would require a new leader and a new politics. The idea that the Lib Dems can do this now, and then, in a few years, say they'd like to be friends with Labour when they are fundamentally unchanged is out of the question. Many people, including electoral reformers like me who always thought there could be a centre-left coalition with the Lib Dems, have to understand they have taken a historic position which puts them outside that game until they change profoundly.

That Denham, a Labour pluralist who supported attempts to form a "progressive coalition", feels this way suggests that many others in the party do, too. For now, the Lib Dems remain surprisingly united behind Clegg. As Richard Grayson points out in his cover story for the latest issue, the trauma of losing Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell in quick succession has made the Liberal Democrats extremely leadership-loyal.

But Clegg's fate is now almost entirely intertwined with that of the coalition, which could leave him dangerously exposed if, as expected, the forthcoming spending cuts make the government rapidly unpopular. Should the Lib Dems suffer significant losses in the May 2011 local elections, we will start to hear the first proper rumblings of discontent.

Either way, it makes sense for Labour to begin planning war-gaming scenarios for a hung parliament now. So which Lib Dem figure could replace Clegg and win over a rejuvenated Labour Party? Step forward, Charles Kennedy.

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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.