Lib Dems prepare to challenge Clegg over secret courts betrayal

Party members will support emergency motion opposing secret courts at this weekend's conference after just seven Lib Dem MPs voted against the bill.

There's disappointment and some anger among Lib Dem members this morning after just seven of the party's 57 MPs voted against the government's plans for secret courts last night. The party's new boy, Eastleigh MP Mike Thornton, had a legitimate excuse (he hasn't been sworn in yet) but the rest stand accused of ignoring the wishes of party members, who voted overwhelmingly to oppose the policy at last year's autumn conference. As Richard Morris wrote on The Staggers yesterday, after winning the ground war in Eastleigh, Lib Dem activists wanted "payback". 

Last night's rebellion may have been small but it was significant. Party president Tim Farron and deputy leader Simon Hughes were among those who voted in favour of Labour's amendments, including the introduction of a public interest test for secret courts, with Sarah Teather, Julian Huppert, Greg Mullholland, Mike Crockart and John Hemming joining them in the no lobby. As Stephen Tall notes at Lib Dem Voice, Teather, not the flavour of the month among progressives after her vote against equal marriage, posted this statement on her Facebook page:

I rebelled on a series of votes this evening on the Justice and Security Bill. Having spent most of my time in Parliament campaigning against rendition, guantanamo bay and torture I take a close interest in matters like this. My Libdem colleagues Julian Huppert and Mike Crockart have done a great job getting changes to the bill during the committee stage and there is no doubt it is a better bill, but I still didn’t feel the safeguards the Government has given on the use of secret courts were convincing enough.

The battle will now move to the party's spring conference in Brighton this weekend, where Lib Dem members will vote on an emergency motion tabled by activists calling for the party to reaffirm its opposition to secret courts.

After the party's by-election success, most have assumed that Nick Clegg will face an easier ride than in previous years. But the opposite is likely to be true. Had the party lost the seat, members may have closed ranks for fear of provoking an ever greater crisis. But victory in Eastleigh has encouraged a new mood of assertiveness among the grass roots. With activists also angered by the government's new backdoor NHS privatisation, expect fireworks this weekend. 

Nick Clegg speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.