Political sketch: The missing Clegg

"Most despised man in Britain" award: an annual gong handed out to the Deputy PM on a weekly basis.

It must have been his turn to pick the kids up from school that kept Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg away from the Commons for the first public discussion of the plan to lift the anchors on the UK and move it in the general direction of the Azores.

Why else would he miss out on the humiliation that was to be poured on his head for facing both ways within 24-hours over the decision of his boss and former partner to give Europe the finger on Friday over its reorganisation plans.

Ever since the heady days of the Rose Garden, the Nick and Dave Show has been at the heart of British politics. They were regulars at all major events and a guaranteed double act in the House of Commons for all matters of importance.

But yesterday, Nick went missing.

He had been spotted leaving home earlier in the day and is believed to have made his way to his place of employment, but come 3.30pm we had the unsettling sight of seeing Dave entering the Chamber on his own and sitting Nick-less in his regular place.

Despite being just back from lunch, the absence of the Deputy PM was quickly seized on by his many enemies on both sides of the House jointly sad at the realisation that the planned drawing and quartering would have to be put off until another day -- assuming, of course, that Nick has not fled the country.

Nick has never been popular since the election; being despised by Tory MPs for stealing their jobs and their cars, and by Labour MPs for exactly the same reasons. He wasn't even that popular with his own members for deciding to take the Tory shilling and set up home with Dave.

But even all that did not prepare the House for his non-appearance as Dave was about to be held to account for saying "non" to everyone from Calais to Koblenz. Of course, it did not help Nick's case that he had been onside with the PM on Saturday saying he had to choice but to get his veto out.

As the rest of his party took a totally opposite and increasingly angry view, and Vince Cable made his usual threat to resign, Nick then proceeded to fall off his ass sometime on Saturday night picking up a quick Pauline conversion that Dave had actually been a bounder and beastly to his foreign pals.

It was against this background that the Lib Dem leader came in for what Fleet Street's Ghengis Khan wing would call "robust criticism" this morning, stopping just short of printing his home address but using plenty of photographs to go with the "Most despised man in Britain" award: an annual gong handed out on a weekly basis.

So in came Dave to yet another first. He has been many thing since he was elected but popular was not one of them, which must explain the look of nervous confusion on his face as his own side cheered him -- and this time almost meant it. Buoyed by party acclaim not to mention more than half the nation according to morning opinion polls, he basked in the rare acclaim which come to a politician who says he did what he said he would -- even though he usually denies it later.

Nick may have been absent but whether by political design or self-protection, just down the bench from the PM sat the other seniors from the Lib-Dem slice of the Coalition cake, Messrs Cable and Huhne placed neatly next to Ken Clarke, the only Tory member of the Cabinet to suggest Dave might be a little bit wrong.

Earlier we had heard reports that Speaker Bercow had put the Commons rozzers on stand-by, fearing post-prandial emotion might spill over into unparliamentary conduct but without Nick it seemed as if the Commons could not be bothered.

To be fair Ed Miliband did have a go, both index fingers out of their holsters, in a pretty polished performance of anger but even he must have seen the opinion polls. Dave did have one killer question which Ed wisely ignored: would he have signed the deal that Dave had vetoed?

As nasty Nadine Norries accused Nick of being a coward, Dave just smiled. He knew where he was but he wasn't saying.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

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