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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.