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

Getty
Show Hide image

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.

0800 7318496