Some party rebellions are good for the leader

A report from the Lib Dem party conference, as the second day begins

Saturday at Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham was the scene for two party rebellions to surface - one opposed by the party leadership and one likely to bring the leadership benefits.

The one opposed by the party leadership was the push by Evan Harris and the Social Liberal Forum to get a health motion restored to the conference agenda. There will be both a Q&A session and a "topical discussion" slot, but they also wanted a conventional motion and vote. Despite a rather poor speech from Simon Hughes opposing this attempt, it failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority. The point though has still been made - and many Liberal Democrat peers will take it as a clear sign that they should stick to their guns in pushing for further amendments to the health bill as it goes through conference.

Peers featured in another rebellion, albeit one that was talked about rather than present at conference. For a group of Lib Dem peers actually oppose the government's plans to introduce elections for the House of Lords, starting in 2015.

Saturday afternoon's motion on Lords reform saw a particularly powerful intervention from former party leader Ming Cambpell, whose constituency is the successor to that held by Asquith, Liberal leader when the party secured the first major round of Lords reform a century ago. He bluntly told conference that he could not see how a Liberal Democrat could oppose elections and that, in the words of Nelson, they should do their duty to the country.

That is a theme I returned to in my own speech in the debate, pointing out that there is a clue in the party's name. We are not the Liberal Hereditaries or the Liberal Appointees For Life, but the Liberal Democrats.

Yet there is a benefit for the party leadership in the resistance of some Lib Dem peers. Political pundits go on endlessly about how leaders should have "Clause 4 moments" when they pick a fight with parts of their own parties. In this case, the reluctant peers have handily offered themselves up in opposition to Nick Clegg and democrats, providing an easy route for the Deputy Prime Minister to garner the benefits of a Clause 4 moment without its usual pains.

Mark Pack is the Head of Innovations for the Lib Dems. He previously worked in their Campaigns & Elections Department for seven years.
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.