Are the Tories losing patience with Clegg?

Downing Street used to deal with Lib Dem "differentiation" with casual condescension. Now the tone i

There was an intriguing flicker of dissent on the government benches during Prime Minister's Questions today when Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat MP for West Cornwall, asked David Cameron if he would consider abandoning the bill containing controversial health reforms. (He won't.)

As rebellious interventions go it was fairly tame, since quite a lot of Tory MPs privately wish the bungled and unloved health reforms would go away. Still, it was a blunt display of Lib Dem assertiveness, which is, apparently the party's plan for 2012. As I wrote earlier this year, Lib Dem strategists have decided to treat Cameron's European veto -- a humiliation for the avowedly Europhile Nick Clegg -- as a licence to "dial up differentiation." In other words, with the Tories surging ahead in areas close to their hearts, it was time for Lib Dems to start making their voices heard a bit louder.

This new, slightly more churlish attitude to coalition is also the best context in which to see the emerging row over "Boris Island". the London mayor's vision of a floating airport in the Thames estuary. Cameron has said he is interested; Clegg was apparently all signed up. Now, suddenly, the Lib Dems have got cold feet. The Tory explanation -- delivered with some irritation -- is that the junior coalition partner doesn't want to go along with something that would boost Conservative chances in mayoral and London Assembly elections in May.

It is noteworthy that the Tories are responding to Lib Dem meddling with some fairly aggressive briefing. This is relatively new. In the past, Downing Street has been happy to have Tory backbenchers let off steam, complaining about the "yellow bastards" with whom they are trapped in partnership. But the standard response from Conservatives in government to Clegg and his team seeking credit for policy or boasting about how they killed Tory ideas always used to be carefully calibrated condescension. The line was that it was better to rise above such petty games. Towards the end of last year, this was upgraded to a more pointed "we don't think it really helps them much" -- the implication being that the Lib Dems embarrass themselves by point-scoring in coalition all the time.

Now it seems Number 10 is taking a more robust approach. The Telegraph's Ben Brogan has an illuminating insight in his column this morning, including some pretty terse remarks about Clegg, his party's uncollegiate tendencies and, astonishingly, his continental ancestry. A source close to the prime minister is reported noting that the Lib Dem leader is "quite foreign you know" adding that "no-one has noticed but there isn't much that is British about him."

It has been noted before that Clegg brings a continental approach to politics that doesn't always gel that well with Westminster's knockabout culture. But this attempt to portray his Europhilia as intrinsically suspect in some deeper sense represents a stepping up of internal coalition hostilities. The Lib Dems have long been amenable to a bit of casual Cameron-bashing on the side. The Tories mostly turned the other cheek. If both parties start hurling insults around things could quickly get out of hand.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Our treatment of today's refugees harks back to Europe's darkest hour

We mustn't forget the lessons of the Second World War in the face of today's refugee crisis, says Molly Scott Cato.

In the 1930s, thousands of persecuted people fled Europe. Our own press ignominiously reported these as "Stateless Jews pouring into this country" and various records exist from that time of public officials reassuring readers that no such thing would be allowed under their watch.

With the benefit of historical hindsight we now know what fate awaited many of those Jews who were turned away from sanctuary. Quite rightly, we now express horror about the Holocaust, an iconic example of the most shocking event of human history, and pledge ourselves to stop anything like it happening again. 

Yet as Europe faces its worst refugee crisis since the Second World War we are witnessing a deafening cacophony of xenophobic voices in response to people fleeing their own present-day horror. We must therefore reflect on whether there is an uncomfortable parallel in the language being used to describe those seeking asylum today and the language used to describe Jews seeking refuge in the 1930s.

Our response to the current refugee crisis suggests we feel fearful and threatened by the mass movement of desperate people; fearful not just of sharing what we have but also of the sense of disorganisation and chaos. Does the fact that these refugees are from Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and so not part of our continent, provide an excuse to allow them to be bombed at home or drowned during their desperate journey to safety?

We are not helped by the poorly informed public debate which—perhaps intentionally—conflates three quite different movements of people: free movement within the EU, irregular or unauthorised migration and the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. While our misguided foreign policy and unwillingness to tackle change may give us a moral responsibility for those fleeing famine and conflict, our responsibility towards refugees from war zones is clear under international law.

Due to our commitments to the UN Refugee Convention, the vast majority of Syrian refugees who reach our territory are given asylum but the UK has taken fewer Syrian refugees than many other European countries. While Germany admitted around 41,000 asylum-seekers in 2014 alone, the UK has taken in fewer than 7000.

The problem is that any sense of compassion we feel conflicts with our perception of the economic constraints we face. In spite of being the fifth largest economy in the world we feel poor and austerity makes us feel insecure. However, when actually confronted with people in crisis our humanity can come to the fore. A friend who spent her holiday in Greece told me that she saw local people who are themselves facing real poverty sharing what they had with the thousands of refugees arriving from Turkey.

A straightforward response to the growing sense of global crisis would be to restore the authority of the UN in managing global conflict, a role fatally undermined by Tony Blair's decision to go to war in Iraq. Our role should be to support UN efforts in bringing about strong governments in the region, not taking the misguided ‘coalition of the willing’ route and running foreign policy based on self-interest and driven by the demands of the oil and arms industries.

We also need EU policy-makers to show leadership in terms of solidarity: to co-operate over the acceptance of refugees and finding them safe routes into asylum, something the European Greens have consistently argued for. The EU Commission and Parliament are in clear agreement about the need for fixed quotas for member states, a plan that is being jeopardised by national government’s responding to right-wing rather than compassionate forces in their own countries.

Refugees from war-torn countries of the Middle East need asylum on a temporary basis, until the countries they call home can re-establish security and guarantee freedom from oppression.

The responsibility of protecting refugees is not being shared fairly and I would appeal to the British people to recall our proud history of offering asylum. Without the benefit of mass media, the excuse of ignorance that can help to explain our failure to act in the 1930s is not available today. We must not repeat the mistakes of that time in the context of today’s crisis, mistakes which led to the deaths of so many Jews in the Nazi death camps. 

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the South West of England.

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.