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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.