The coalition was the best option in May 2010, and it's the best option now

Why Lib Dem members should support their leadership.

Liberal Left's opposition to the Liberal Democrats' involvement in the coalition, as set out by here Linda Jack, is based on a number of questionable premises and an unwillingness to consider the realistic alternatives.

The group's vice-chair, Richard Grayson, criticises what he sees as the party's change of view on the deficit. He is wrong. Pre-election, Vince Cable's key message on the deficit was that a judgement on the timing of austerity had to be based on economics rather than politics or ideology. On that basis, in the run up to the election, the party adopted the working assumption that cuts would start in earnest in 2011-12, with some savings made immediately as a "down payment".

Yet by the time of the coalition negotiations the economic situation had changed. Alistair Darling was attending emergency meetings in Brussels as the threat of contagion loomed large over Europe. With one of Europe's biggest budget deficits, Britain was in a perilous position. And it's for this reason that the party's judgement changed. And in my view we've been proved right - yes, the economy might be growing more slowly than we would like, but the deficit is coming down and we avoided being caught in the centre of the fiscal crisis that spread through Europe.

And there is a more compelling reason why Liberal Left are wrong to oppose our involvement in the coalition: the alternatives would have been much, much worse.

A coalition with Labour and a number of the smaller parties in Parliament was never a serious proposition, both because of the numerical difficulties and because of Labour's intransigence. In hindsight it's clear that most in the Labour party weren't interested in joining a coalition. They'd rather be in opposition.

A confidence and supply arrangement was another option, but in my view those who think this would have been better for either the country or the Lib Dems are mistaken; it would have all the downsides of coalition with few of the benefits.

That left only a coalition or a minority Tory administration. Within weeks of forming a minority government, George Osborne would have produced the most populist, tax-cutting budget imaginable and, when it failed to get through the Commons, David Cameron would have visited Her Majesty, Parliament would have been dissolved and a new general election - probably in autumn 2010 - would have ensued. And at this point, both Labour and the Tories would have had one message: "it's time for you to vote for one of us - the Lib Dems have rejected the option of power". The Lib Dems would have been squeezed like never before; every marginal - virtually every Lib Dem seat - would be vulnerable. We'd have been reduced to a miniscule Parliamentary Party.

And the Tories would have got their majority. Even the most anti-coalition of Lib Dems can't seriously say that that would have been a preferable option.

The combination of being in government and being members of a truly democratic party leaves Lib Dem members with an immense amount of influence. We should use it as best we can to make this government is fair and as liberal as possible - not blindly supporting but constructively engaging, working with Lib Dem ministers, who we know to be honest, caring liberals, to achieve as much as possible.

We won't always get our own way, as we shouldn't as a party that received 22 per cent of the vote and fewer than one in ten seats in the Commons at the last election. But we are punching above our weight to implement hundreds of long-standing party policies.

Going into coalition was the best option for the Liberal Democrats and for the country, and the arguments why remain just as compelling today as they did on 11 May 2010. Party members must concentrate on making it work, for the country and for the party. Opposing from the sidelines is no solution at all.

Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.