Clegg backs Huhne for a cabinet return - but who would make way?

Former Energy Secretary will be back "at the top table" if he is cleared over speeding claims, says Clegg.

Speaking at a Press Gallery lunch in Westminster, Nick Clegg has just said that he'd like to see his old rival Chris Huhne back in the cabinet if the former Energy Secretary succeeds in clearing his name. Huhne was charged with perverting the course of justice in February 2012 after allegedly asking his former wife Vicky Pryce to accept speeding points on his behalf. His trial was due to begin last October but was adjourned until 14 January for legal reasons.

Asked whether Huhne could return, Clegg said he would like to see him "at the top table of British politics". Then asked whether this meant the cabinet, he replied "Yes". This prompts the question of which Lib Dem cabinet minister would make way for Huhne. The party currently has a quota of five seats (Clegg, Danny Alexander, Vince Cable, Michael Moore and Ed Davey), with David Laws, who returned to government as an education minister in last September's reshuffle, also attending cabinet.

Clegg insisted that Davey, who replaced Huhne as Energy Secretary, was not simply warming his predecessor's seat, but this did not amount to a guarantee of his position. With Clegg unlikely to appoint a non-Scot to the post of Scottish Secretary (Michael Moore's current job) and Alexander and Cable both secure in their posts, Davey is the most likely to be sacrificed.

Former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, who resigned in February 2012 after being charged with perverting the course of justice. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.