Commons Confidential: Why did David Cameron try and leave Nick Clegg out of the TV debates?

PLUS: Gunfight at the TUC Corral Mk II.

Chumless Nick Clegg will be dismayed to learn that his Conservative line manager, David Cameron, attempted to get him left out of any 2015 TV election debates. I hear that Tory and Labour spinners both suggested excluding Mr Middle Man during initial discussions, Labour on the grounds that the ConDem coalition should have a single representative and the Cons because, well, they don’t like what Lenin might call a useful idiot.

Broadcasters are growing frustrated at the refusal of Westminster’s three largest parties to agree in principle to repeat 2010’s three live debates in 2015. The foot-dragger-inchief is Cameron’s mouthpiece, Craig “Crazy Olive” Oliver. The stroppy ex-BBC man believes Cleggmania cost Cameron a majority, so, I’m told, favours a single TV debate if he can’t pull the plug. Telly bods are mulling over how to break the deadlock. Watch this space.

Crazy Olive’s really a herbivore in the political jungle but strives to emulate Alastair Campbell, a true carnivore red in tooth and claw. A colleague of Olive’s called him Malcolm Tucker without the swearing. The broadcasters – BBC, ITV and Sky – complain that he undermines accountability by wrapping the Prime Minister in cotton wool, offering pooled clips as he shields his chap from interrogatory interviews. Word reaches your correspondent of an unintentionally revealing Olive riposte to those who accuse him of mollycoddling MONTAGE BY DAN MURRELL the people’s toff. “That’s unfair,” he wailed. “Cameron did Test Match Special.”

Na h-Eileanan an Iar’s MP, Angus MacNeil, should get out more in Whitehall, or at least buy an A-Z. The SNP-er was late for a meeting between the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, and a delegation from the Outer Hebrides on a 1,000-mile round trip to discuss wind turbines. MacNeil, eight years in the job, was forced to ask a policeman the way to the Energy Department and then couldn’t find the right office. His lights were on but there was no one at home.

To the Lib Dumb jamboree in Glasgow. Nick Clegg developed a cult of the non-personality by speaking so often, even he must have been bored by the sound of his voice. The exhibition area was smaller than your average village fete. A party stall flogging badges and magnets of individual MPs struggling to look statesmanlike sold a steady flow of Sarah Teathers. The Member for Desolate Central reminds them of when the party was supposed to care about poor people instead of making people poor.

Ed Miliband will hope to avoid a rerun in Brighton of the gunfight at the TUC Corral along the coast in Bournemouth. The private meeting between him and union leaders was, by all accounts, worse than was first thought. The GMB’s Paul Kenny sustained fire for five minutes with a lecture on the values of solidarity and collective action, with Miliband’s interjections brutally swept aside. Sounds like old times.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

But come on, Nick looks lovely behind a podium. Photo: Getty

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

Photo: Getty
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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.