Clegg and Cameron’s stage-managed ruckus

Nick Clegg and David Cameron are keen to play up their differences. But are there really cracks in t

The Prime Minister and his deputy both gave interviews to national newspapers this weekend. It was obviously David Cameron's turn to be Good Cop in the Daily Telegraph. He duly took the softly-softly approach, discussing watching DVDs with his wife in bed and putting together Ikea cupboards. Nick Clegg, however, was Bad Cop in the Independent. A very bad cop, indeed.

After a rather-too-revealing interview in the New Statesman this month, Clegg has attempted a self-reinvention, turning himself from a simpering punchbag and teary-eyed audiophile to a hardened political street fighter, swinging at anyone who gets in his way.

"I'm a human being – not a punchbag," he whimpered to Jemima Khan in the New Statesman, while also admitting that he cries to music. Now, though, he's not a human being, he's an animal, tearing strips off anyone who looks at him funny or gets in his way. John Reid? "Reactionary and backward-looking." The Tories? "A right-wing clique who want to keep things the way they are."

Clegg even massacres the English language to prove what a tough nut he is. "I am probably harder line than anybody . . . about making sure that Liberal Democrats don't get rolled over."

And it has worked. The Lib Dems haven't been rolled over – in his head, at least. "If you were a political expert from Mars and you didn't take your cue from the Daily Mail, you would conclude that this is, objectively speaking, a quintessentially Liberal government."

But hang on, the coalition is fundamentally Tory, says Cameron in his interview:

People who voted Conservative can look at this government and say, of course it's a coalition, I didn't get everything I wanted, but I got reform of the welfare system. I got a cap on immigration. I got the abolition of Labour's jobs tax; a massive expansion of academy schools. I think Conservative supporters have every reason to think, "Of course this government hasn't solved all the problems of the country, but they're on my side."

As the local elections near, both leaders are desperate to paint their party's principles as the guiding narrative of the coalition – and emphasise that neither of them really likes coalition government. In this regard, they sound remarkably similar, for men so eager to emphasise their differences.

Clegg describes the coalition as an "unsentimental . . . transaction", sounding awfully like a husband justifying his visits to a call girl. Clegg doesn't want a relationship with his bit on the side – Cameron means nothing to me, Miriam! "I see all this stuff about how we are somehow mates. We are not. We are not there to become friends," he says. "I didn't come into this coalition government to look for friends." Tennis partners, perhaps – but not friends.

Cameron, meanwhile, gets the point across through a loud conversation with a Conservative councillor in Southampton, in earshot of the Daily Telegraph's Allison Pearson.

"Can we get a few right-wing Lib Dems over to us?" asked Cameron. "Coalition's working well. Quietly deprive the Lib Dems of their seats?

"Don't write that down," the Prime Minister says to me jokingly.

He might as well have thrown her a cheeky wink. With local elections and the AV referendum just two weeks away, it is no wonder that Clegg and Cameron are preaching to their respective choirs in the Independent and Daily Telegraph.

The interviews, however, are electioneering, plain and simple. Any talk about "cracks" in the coalition on the back of them is misplaced. It's a stage-managaged ruck to please the punters and nothing more.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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