Nick Clegg has robbed my party of its soul - he must go now

Those on the left of the party have been treated with contempt as Clegg seeks to transform the Lib Dems into a free market sect.

I am in mourning. In mourning for my once great and principled party which, judging by the past week, believes in very little that it once held dear.

From opposition to nuclear power to being against a replacement for Trident and supporting a 50p tax rate for the highest earners, we’ve seen these and other totemic policies abandoned. It makes me think some commentators are right when they say that Nick Clegg has all but completed his transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a party which was to the left of Labour (or at least New Labour) to one that is now an annex to the Conservative Party. 

I’ve long argued that what Clegg wants to do is turn the Lib Dems into a British version of the German FDP. The free-market FDP wins a very small percentage of the vote but seems to remain permanently in government as a parasitical attachment to the conservative coalition led by Angela Merkel.

That kind of thing must surely not be the aim of the Liberal Democrats. Of course we’re pluralists and believe in working with other parties. But we shouldn’t ignore our own history and rubbish our own principles just so our mnisters can keep their hands on red boxes.

Our history brings up names like Keynes, Beveridge, and Grimond, radical social liberals. And, yes, other names such as Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. As councillor and London Assembly Member Stephen Knight reminded us at a fringe put on by Liberal Left at this week’s Liberal Democrat conference, our party is a successor to two fine traditions, not just liberalism but also social democracy. Some would like to wipe the SDP from our history, but others, such as Vince Cable, continue to self-define as social democrats and we will not allow that fine tradition to be forgotten.

But over and above policy matters, what has upset me most this week has been the way some in our party, including Nick Clegg, treat those on the left. We’re belittled, patronised and treated with ridicule. Like embarrassing relatives, we're tolerated but not wanted.

Perhaps the worst example of this came during Clegg’s Q&A session when, before she’d even asked a question, Clegg made belittling comments about my colleague and friend Linda Jack, the chair of Liberal Left and one of the nicest and most principled people in our party.

When Linda did ask a question, she asked Clegg whether people such as her still had a place in the party. Clegg answered by not answering; he just talked about that morning’s economy motion. Any reasonable leader, regardless of whether they agreed with a certain individual, would have said, "Of course you have a place in our party, we’re a broad church". 

He said no such thing, which makes many of us feel like he’d really quite like us to leave the party so the transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a social liberal party to an economic liberal party will be complete.

Well, I have a very clear message for Mr Clegg and his acolytes: we’re going nowhere. As Janice Turner of the Social Liberal Forum said at the Liberal Left fringe, "this is our party too." Of course we’ve done good things in government, from re-linking pensions to earnings, to enacting Equal Marriage, but we’ve also compromised and capitulated too often and acquiesced too much.

So, after three years of biting my tongue, hoping for a better day and defending his leadership, I now call on Nick Clegg to go. What residual respect I had left for him was destroyed this week by the way he and his ilk referred to and dealt with those who dared to disagree with them.

Those of us on the centre-left of our party, who I believe continue to be its mainstream, will, despite it all, continue to fight for what we believe. A couple of years ago, at a Lib Dem conference not long after the coalition was formed, Nick Clegg told delegates, "we’ll never lose our soul."

Sadly, I fear we have.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat borough and parish councillor in Leicestershire

Nick Clegg delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

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Theresa May's Article 50 letter fires the Brexit starting gun

But as well as handing over a letter, Theresa May hands over control of the process. 

So the starting gun will be fired, and the Brexit process will begin. The delivery of the letter from Theresa May to Donald Tusk is a highly symbolic moment. It is also, crucially, the moment when the Prime Minister loses control of the process.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Brexit process to date has been the remarkable degree of control exercised over it by Downing Street. Brexit means Brexit, declared the Prime Minister, and since that day it has been her who has defined what precisely it does mean. After a quarter century of bitter division over Europe, culminating in a referendum where the Parliamentary party was split down the middle, she has managed to unite the overwhelming majority of the Conservative party for a “hard Brexit” that very few claimed to support a year ago.  As an impotent opposition and ineffective Tory opponents watched on, she has made it clear from the first that Britain will leave the single market and, almost certainly, the customs union. Rumours from Whitehall suggest that, whatever the concerns or doubts of line departments, these have been ignored or over-ruled.

Now, however, the Prime Minister has lost control of the process. Inevitably, given the relative strength of the parties’ negotiating positions, both the agenda and outcome of the talks will be determined largely by our European partners. It is of course true that they have an interest in preserving trade with us, as do we with them; nor do they have any interest, either economic or political, in “punishing” us for the sake of it. That being said, our interests and theirs are far from aligned. They have other priorities. Not allowing cherry picking among EU rules is one. Ensuring Britain pays its fair share is another.

And, while it is in neither side’s interest for the talks to collapse, we have considerably more to lose. May’s claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” may play well with the Daily Express, but is has not gone down well with UK business. As the economics professor Jonathan Portes sets out here, the consequences of “no deal” would go far beyond the mere imposition of tariffs; the economic impacts would be significant for other EU countries, and very  severe indeed for the UK.  There are increasing signs that ministers are, belatedly, appreciating the risks, and are anxious to avoid such an outcome.

So both sides want a deal – and the UK, at least, needs one. But several hurdles stand in the way. In the first place, there is the vexed question of money. Britain, as our partners are concerned, has outstanding liabilities that must be paid. The British government may accept some of these, but is sure to quibble about the sums. Discussions of money are never easy in the EU, and the task of figuring out what a net contributor to the budget might owe at a time when discussions over the new 5 year funding programme are about to start will be no exception.  Nevertheless, if it were simply left to the civil servants, no doubt an acceptable compromise would be reached. The bigger  issue  is whether Mrs May  is prepared to take on some of her own backbenchers – and, more importantly, sections of the UK press – to sell a deal that will inevitably mean that the UK writes a sizeable cheque.

Second, there is the question of how to ensure the "frictionless" trade of which the Prime Minister has spoken. This makes eminent sense on one level – why make trade more difficult with the partner that buys 44 per cent of our exports? On another, though, it is hard to see how she can deliver.

I for one simply lack the imagination to see how we can be sufficiently out of the customs union to allow us to sign our own trade deals, while sufficiently in it to avoid customs checks and tariffs. For another, it is difficult to foresee conditions under which the EU would allow us to enjoy any of the benefits of the single market – whereby states accept each other’s rules and standards – without the oversight provided by the European Court of Justice.

And finally, since all parties now seem to accept that the prospects of concluding an “ambitious and comprensive” trade deal by March 2019 are vanishingly, there is the question of what happens then. The government has talked about an “implementation phase”; but how do you have an “implementation phase” when you do not know exactly what you are trying to implement?

It could just be me. I may simply not have fathomed the subtle devices that might allow these circles to be squared. But it does seem clear to me that doing so would be far from straightforward.

And then, of course, whatever is negotiated needs to be approved. Forget for a moment the continent, where there has probably never been a worse time to try to get a free trade deal approved by 27 European parliaments. The Prime Minister will almost certainly have parliamentary problems here in the UK.

The Labour party has adopted a position whereby they will vote against any deal that does not provide the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the single market and customs union,” to quote Keir Starmer. If the other member states are to be believed, the full benefits of membership are, and will be, only available to members, so this is will simply not be the case.

Labour, then, will probably end up voting against the bill. What Tories opposed to either Brexit or to leaving the single market might then do is anyone’s guess. It may be that, by autumn of 2018, they feel sufficiently empowered  - either because of a shift in public opinion, or because of indications of falling economic confidence, or, conceivably, because of declining faith in the Prime Minster – to make common cause with the opposition.

Under such circumstances, May might face the real possibility of defeat in Parliament. Which in turn poses the question as to why she would she risk putting a deal that might be rejected to a vote?

It seems to me that she would have very little incentive to do so. If she cannot get the kind of deal that seems, on the surface, impossible to get anyway, surely better, from her point of view to simply walk away? Blaming the Europeans for failure would be all to easy. And holding a snap election on a patriotic ticket and opposed by the current Labour party would guarantee a healthy majority.

Two years is a long time in politics. And much that is unexpected will doubtless transpire during the negotiations to come. Do not, however, discount the possibility that it might all go wrong. 

Anand Menon is director of The UK in a Changing Europe and professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King's College London.