NHS reforms offer still more pain, even less gain for the Lib Dems

Clegg should have learnt from tuition fees that complex arguments can't sell hated reforms and that

Nick Clegg will urge the Liberal Democrats to "tear off the rear view mirror" in a rally to open the party's spring conference in Gateshead this evening. It is a curious metaphor that is meant to signal optimism and determination - looking only at the governing road ahead, not nervously behind at the hard path already travelled. It could also be interpreted as denial.

The message will be reinforced by party chair Tim Farron, whose speech is previewed in a Guardian op-ed this morning. He invites Lib Dems - instructs them even - to stop feeling guilty about the compromises that have been made for the sake of coalition. Farron describes power as "an occupational hazard" for serious political parties and one from which the Lib Dems ought not shy away.

This coordinated message is meant to signal the fact that, as one strategist put it to me recently, "the party is coming out of its defensive crouch." There is cautious confidence that this May's local elections will not be a repeat of last year's massacre. Campaign resources are being more strategically focused; recent council by-election wins give grounds for optimism.

Meanwhile, Lib Dem MPs, most activists and Clegg himself are all fed up with the expectation that they ought to be apologising for the very fact of being in a coalition when, from their point of view, that is an epic achievement. What, after all, would have been the point of all those years in opposition if the chance to enact party policy had been turned down? The challenge, according to this analysis, is to explain to a sceptical and inattentive public quite how much Lib Dem policy is actually being introduced and what a triumph this is, making the country fairer; or fairer, at least, than it would have been had the Tories been able to rule unrestrained.

And there lies the biggest problem. Partly by necessity, partly through ill-judgement, the Lib Dems have ended up winning many little things, while the Conservatives have won very big things. The two defining issues of this parliament could well end up being George Osborne's economic choice to press ahead with austerity at an accelerated pace and David Cameron's decision to forge ahead with unpopular and poorly understood NHS reforms. Labour are convinced the public will turn against both. (The evidence only supports that assertion with regard to the health service.) Either way, the Lib Dem role is cast firmly as accomplice, which is the classic trap for junior coalition partners - maximum pain if it goes wrong; minimum credit if it works. The "pupil premium" and tweaks to the House of Lords won't alter that equation much.

Lib Dems gathering in Gateshead today know that much, which is why they are agitated about the Health and Social Care Bill. This time last year, a rebellious mood at the party's spring conference helped spur Clegg into demanding a "pause" in the legislative process to reconsider the whole thing. There is a growing sense in the party that the reforms have not changed enough (or are not judged to be anything other than trouble by the public) to justify endorsement. Would not the Lib Dems be able to signal their true worth in government by vetoing the measure altogether? Might they not then be able to campaign on a claim to have saved the NHS? To that end there is a motion in the works - yet to be scheduled for debate - calling for the health reforms to be scrapped.

Senior Lib Dems (and a large number of Tories, including some close to Downing Street) wish Clegg had killed the bill last year. Instead, the reforms have been mangled enough by constant amendment to persuade the public that the whole thing is a shambles, but not enough to convince anyone that the underlying intent has been changed. This is, without doubt, a disaster for the government.

David Cameron hopes that, once the furore around the actual legislation is out of the way, a process of explanation, education and reassurance can reconcile people to the changes. The one person in politics best equipped to know how wrong that assumption is should be Nick Clegg. It is exactly the technique he tried after his party's u-turn on tuition fees. (One reason to hold on to that rear view mirror for a while, perhaps.) He explained over and over again how the new system was, in fact, fairer than the old one, how it was the best option available, how the underlying principle that had led him to make his anti-fees pledge in opposition was kind of honoured by measures being taken to mitigate ... blah, blah. No matter.

A visceral sense of betrayal created an emotional barrier that no rational argument could penetrate. There is a danger of the same happening with the NHS. Once people decide that Cameron and co. have reneged on a fundamental pledge to protect the health service, they aren't going to be swayed by a claim that cuts and chaos are a different kind of protection - special long-term protection that requires pain in the short-term. Anger is rarely appeased with a graph. And, of course, when that happens, Clegg's amendments, adjustments and moderations will be worth nothing. No one thanks the midwife at the birth of a monster.

This problem expresses a wider strategic challenge for the Lib Dems - and for Clegg in particular. The party is having to work out how to make coalition government work and educate voters about what that means at the same time. It also has the misfortune to be allied with the Tories, who aggravate a unique kind of hostility among a section of the population whose votes Clegg needs. That distaste is deep-rooted and cultural; it transcends day-to-day politics. This tribal barrier is not unique to British politics, but it is especially pronounced by European standards. Clegg's sense of how coalition ought to be part of the Westminster repertoire is derived, in part, from his experience of the continent.

He is taking the Lib Dems on a transition from being one kind of party to something completely different. He took over something distinctly British, mildly eccentric, contrarian, and comfortable in opposition and is turning it into a technocratic, professional party of coalition. It is like remodelling the Campaign for Real Ale as McKinsey. Tricky.

The most compelling argument for what Clegg is trying to do (leaving aside how effectively he is managing it) is that there is no alternative. A party that refuses the opportunity to govern forfeits the right to be taken seriously. But given the Lib Dems' poll ratings, the grass roots could be forgiven for wondering how much more pain they have to endure before the political dividends of the transformation are felt. On this journey it isn't the rear view mirror Clegg has to worry about, it's everyone in the back chanting "are we nearly there yet?"

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.