Be liberal, Clegg

The Liberal Democrats cannot belong to a centre-right government and yet insist to supporters that t

I'm sure Nick Clegg's inbox bulges sufficiently with advice without his reading list of suggestions being added to by a Tory activist (that is, a deliverer of leaflets) from Hackney (that is, a deliverer of unread leaflets), but, you know, I'm coming at this from a different angle than most. I'd quite like Nick Clegg to succeed, for one thing, which perhaps gives my advice a different flavour from that of Simon "And We've Just Lost Sheffield, Nick Clegg's Backyard!" Hughes.

I'll get to the advice in a minute. But first: do you know the best thing about Twitter? No, not the superinjunction feeds. Twitter's greatest advantage is that you no longer have to sit through dull-as-ditchwater documentaries, or endure Question Time, to know what the political class are saying to one another; you just scan through the timeline of people who are paid to watch these programmes.

Which is why I know, without having seen it, that the best line in last night's Andrew Rawnsley Channel 4 programme on the coalition came from David Davis, who said: "The Liberal Democrats have got the best seats in the plane, but no parachutes."

I don't quite agree with the imagery. The Liberals do have good seats in the plane, no doubt. But it's not so much that they're not wearing parachutes – or, at least, not just that. It's more that the behaviour of some senior Liberals is akin to the co-pilot coming back into the cabin, mid-flight, opening the aircraft's doors and yelling impotently at the ground 37,000 feet below: "Just cos we're flying this plane doesn't mean we want to go to its destination. We'd really rather it went somewhere much, much further to the left. Look, I've got a flight-plan agreement written last May and everything! D'you hear me?"

The resulting rapid diminution of the distance between ground and aircraft renders the lack of parachutes (not to mention the yelling about preferred destination) a moot point.

I'm not actually a huge fan of coherence in politics: prioritise the human, not the (ideology) machine. But on the axis of coherence, the Liberal Democrats are suffering because they're too close to the 100 per cent incoherent end of the scale. My point is this: you cannot belong to a government of the centre right, but continue to insist to (erstwhile) supporters that you are secretly still on the left, and expect to gain the respect of anyone.

Now, I know what Liberal Democrats will say to this: first, they somehow defy convention and don't belong on that old-fashioned left-right axis ("It's so 20th century, my dear!" Blah, blah). Sorry, but policies do, insofar as any particular policy maps on to a particular point on that axis. (Or its near analogue, the freedom/equality scale. Do you want to build a policy machine that will make every school the same? Or do you want to let thousands of different people open schools and let parents choose for themselves?).

Second, if they admit to belonging on any political axis at all, they'll say that it's a special place with its own values, quite distinct from those found in the Labour or Tory tribes. But nearly every policy debate within both the "old" parties can be seen as a discussion between a liberal and a conservative point of view. There's nothing special about the adjective "liberal" when it's used by someone wearing a bright yellow rosette.

So this is my advice to Mr Clegg. If you continue to invent dividing lines between your party and ours, and shout loudly about those differences, you'll continue to fail. All dividing lines are fiction. (Remember Gordon Brown? Dividing lines were his sole political tool, his entire tactic to insist that all truth, and goodness, and reason, were synonymous with his name.) And what's more, with a coalition government, voters are more aware of this than ever.

If you want to succeed, however, then turn your back on the social-democratic wing of your party and emphasise your inner liberal. It is that instinct which most aligns you with a large number of Tories – and it's not a different liberal instinct from ours because you wear a Lib Dem badge and we wear a Tory one (which is why, for example, if you decide to prevent the election of police commissioners you won't be scoring a point over the Tories which will be congratulated by a grateful electorate; you will only be underlining your current incoherence).

You are more likely to be successful the more you work with, and not against, Conservatives. This isn't a message that either Mr Huhne or Dr Cable will want to hear. But that brings me to my last bit of advice, to underline your commitment to the coalition: get a proper cabinet job. Remove Mr Huhne and Dr Cable from the government, and replace them with yourself and David Laws. Show Dr Cable that it is not only Tories who are capable of being ruthless in pursuit of success.

Graeme Archer is a regular contributor to ConservativeHome hoping to remain on the Tory party official candidates' list. In real life he is a statistician. On Twitter he's @graemearcher.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle