The Lib Dem leadership must stop deluding itself over secret courts

Every wing, arm and leg of the party is livid about this. Clegg can't shrug the defeat off.

Last week, as ever before spring conference, every interviewer asked Lib Dem activists the same question – 'what’s this year's row going to be about?' This time, the media gave us standard responses as well: Huhne, Rennard or "Plan V" for the economy.

And all week, to a general response of rolling eyes, activists told them the same answer: secret courts.
No one was interested. No one cared. 'Aren’t you more bothered that your president called you cockroaches and nutters?' was the standard response. No, not at all – actually that’s more of a badge of pride. We care about secret courts.
 
The clues were there. "The day the party fell out of love with the coalition", wrote Liberator magazine after so many of our MPs defied Lib Dem policy and trooped through the lobbies to support the Justice and Security Bill. "There is no getting away from the fact that there is a huge gap between what all but 7 MPs (and a few absentees) did last night and what most activists wanted them to do", wrote Lib Dem Voice. And 100-plus activists signed a letter to the press saying the bill was plain wrong (I was proud to be one of them). But largely, I suspect, because no one asked Nick about it on ‘Call Clegg’, both the media and the leadership thought it was a non-issue. Big mistake.
 
Nick appeared unprepared for questions on it in his Q&A on Saturday, his answers throwing numerous straw men up and being quickly battered down. In the least surprising turn of events of the weekend, it was announced that the #secretcourts debate had won the ballot to be the first emergency motion of the conference. Then the eminent human rights lawyer, Dinah Rose, announced she was quitting the party over secret courts. And finally, we saw one of the most respected and admired campaigners in the party, Jo Shaw, resign in the emergency debate in one of the best speeches made from the floor in a long time. It’s worth watching. Needless to say, the motion opposing secret courts was overwhelmingly carried. 

According to the prominent Lib Dem blogger Charlotte Henry, a source close to the leader expressed the view that the secret courts debacle didn’t really matter "because nobody in the real world cares". How wrong headed can they be?

Every wing, arm and leg of the party is livid about this. They won’t win another Eastleigh without the activists – and there’s now a move by activists to refuse to support any parliamentary candidate who wandered through the yes lobby the other week. That’s how seriously people take it.

The leadership are no doubt sitting at home, cursing Jo Shaw’s name and wondering why the grass roots aren’t busy repeating the mantra set down from now till 2015 rather than what we are saying – "no to secret courts".

It’s because we are liberals. And we are democrats. And Nick – we’re against this sort of thing.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg makes his keynote speech at the Liberal Democrat spring conference on 10 March 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.