After Labour's leftwards lurch, the Lib Dems have the centre all to themselves

With Labour preaching socialism and the Tories chasing after UKIP, Clegg will be rather pleased with how things have turned out.

Apparently we in the Lib Dems are meant to have had a fit of the vapours over the re-emergence of Red Ed. James Forsyth tells us that "there’s genuine concern in Clegg’s circle about the contents and policy implications of Miliband’s speech. After yesterday, it is even harder to see how a Clegg Miliband coalition would work."

And I’m sure he’s not making that up. I suspect Nick does go a little weak at the knees at the thought of being the filling in an Ed Miliband and Linda Jack sandwich.

But actually Nick will probably be rather pleased about the way things have panned out in Brighton. Sure, the inner circle may be a little horrified at the prospect of coalition negotiations with a Labour leader reviving the 1983 manifesto, but at least Labour have now clearly tacked left. They may not have meant to – 'One Nation' is still being kicked about - but in the context of Labour’s new strategic approach, it’s a dead duck. They have nailed their colours firmly to the socialist mast.

Meanwhile, far from being tempted to chase after them, the Tories seem destined to tack in the other direction as they look to take the ground back from UKIP. How else to explain George Osborne's decision to march off to Brussels to defend capitalist predators just as Miliband is taking them on. 'Ed’s trying to fix the market, George is trying to free it' will be their cry around the shires.

And where does that leave Nick? Well, firstly, in the centre ground that he has promised to fight for since the last election. And what’s more, he finds the Lib Dems now have it all to themselves.

Secondly, Labour knows full well that to retain 2010 Lib Dem voters, it needs Lib Dem-friendly policies – like a mansion tax, a living wage, free childcare, decarbonisation targets. Why, Lib Dem activists even voted to condemn the Bedroom Tax last week. Plenty of common ground there for any coalition negotiations.

And thirdly, if either Labour or the Tories genuinely want to deliver on any of their more radical and eye-catching policies, they’re going to have to come up with some significant quid pro quos for the Lib Dems – like Lords reform. Otherwise they may find they can’t deliver on some high profile pledges, which, from experience, doesn’t play well with the average voter.

So it’s all fallen into place rather nicely. Almost like it was planned that way. It’s probably why they call him Mystic Clegg.

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

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this month. 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 "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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