Clegg is the winner from Chris Huhne’s woes

The Lib Dem leader will no longer face a challenge from within the cabinet.

His troubles may pale in comparison to those of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but it will have been another difficult morning for Chris Huhne. The Labour MP Simon Danzuck has lodged a formal complaint with the Essex police force and an investigation seems certain to follow.

For now, Huhne remains in the cabinet and has pledged to fight the allegations but many feel that a leave of absence is the only appropriate response. As today's Telegraph notes, Peter Hain stood down as work and pensions secretary in 2008 while police investigated claims that he failed to report £100,000 in party donations.

For Nick Clegg, Huhne's woes are the first piece of political luck he has enjoyed since the formation of the coalition. In recent weeks the former SDP member had positioned himself as the natural successor to Clegg, talking up the possibility of a "progressive alliance" and emerging as the leading critic of the No to AV campaign.

That Huhne won more votes than Clegg in the 2007 Lib Dem leadership election (1,300 votes were delayed in the Christmas post and never counted) meant that he had an honourable claim to the leadership. But with his political woes, there is now no obvious replacement for Clegg in the cabinet. Vince Cable, by his own admission, is too old, and neither Danny Alexander (a man tainted by his association with George Osborne) nor Michael Moore shows any sign of leadership ambition.

The obvious replacement for Clegg is the party president, Tim Farron, but he, sensibly enough, is keeping his powder dry until 2015.

In the meantime, we can expect speculation over Huhne's possible replacement to grow. The coalition agreement guarantees the Lib Dems at least five seats in the cabinet. The severe penalty handed down to David Laws (the Commons will vote this afternoon to suspend him from the House for seven days) means that his name is not in the frame. But, for everyone else, the jockeying begins now.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.