Lib Dem recordings: what they said

Shock, horror! Coalition makes Lib Dems feel uncomfortable.

As promised, the Telegraph has published recordings of conversations with more Lib Dem MPs, taped by undercover reporters at the constituency surgeries of Michael Moore, Steve Webb and Ed Davey. But although they include a few titbits of information – the cuts to housing benefits came as a surprise to Lib Dem MPs, for example – there's nothing in them as exciting as Vince Cable's claim that he could topple the government by standing down.

The comments merely confirm what many people suspected about coalition politics: it's a furtive, acrimonious business, and many Lib Dems are worried about what it is doing to the country and to their party.

Michael Moore, Scottish Secretary and MP for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk

  • Cutting child benefit for higher-rate taxpayers is "blatantly not a consistent and fair thing to do".
  • The increase in tuition fees to a maximum £9,000 is "the biggest, ugliest, most horrific thing in all of this . . . a car crash, a train wreck".
  • He feels bad about it: "I signed a pledge that promised not to do this. I've just done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed. I've had to break a pledge and very, very publicly."
  • The tuition fees increase will be "deeply damaging" for the Lib Dems.
  • Conservative right-wingers "hate us with a passion – and I can't say it's unreciprocated".
  • Lib Dem sacrifices are justified by an obscure sense of duty to the coalition: "What we've all had to weigh up is the greater sense of what the coalition is about."

Steve Webb, MP for Thornbury and Yate and pensions minister

  • He is concerned about looking "too cosy" with the Conservatives by hiding the disasgreements underlying the coalition: "But if people see us sniping at each other and bickering publicly . . . I know we perhaps risk looking a bit too lovey-dovey, don't we? That's the problem; it looks a bit too cosy."
  • The Lib Dems have acted behind the scenes to stop Tory proposals: "There's a lot of stuff that goes on behind, you know, a lot of things that will never see the light of day because we stop them."
  • He is worried about the child benefit cut, which will penalise couples in which one partner earns just above the higher-rate threshold: "I have written to the Treasury about this and, to be honest, the answer I got back wasn't good enough . . . I don't have a problem with the general principle but I don't think the way we're doing it is terribly clever."

Ed Davey, MP for Kingston and Surbiton

  • Plans to limit housing benefit would hit some of the poorest in society: "Their housing benefit cuts are going to mean, in my view, if they go through, that some people who are on the breadline will be put below the breadline. And that's just deeply unacceptable."
  • He had not heard of the proposal before its announcement at the Conservative party conference.
  • Middle-class families will be "very badly hit" by the cuts to housing benefit.

Nothing to see here

Unless anybody had thought that all the Liberal Democrats sold their consciences when they went into coalition with the Conservatives, the news that Michael Moore feels guilty about tuition fees is not surprising. Likewise the non-revelations that some Conservatives don't like the Lib Dems very much, that the Lib Dems are worried about losing their identity as a distinct grouping from the coalition, and that the Conservatives scheme behind their coalition partners' backs.

The lack of more shocking admissions – unless more are being kept in reserve – might frustrate the Telegraph. The paper's decision not to publish Cable's incendiary remarks about Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB takeover backfired. These latest revelations will not distract attention from the awkward situation the paper has got itself into.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.