Nick Clegg is perilously short of friends – but his enemies seem determined to help him

Lib Dem strategists are brimming with gratitude to the two big parties for making single-party government seem an unattractive proposition.

It is a measure of how bad things once looked for the Liberal Democrats that progress for them consists of having a leader who is disliked only as much as every other politician.
 
Nick Clegg is no matinee idol but neither is he the object of mass derision. At the peak of his ignominy, immediately after reneging on a pledge not to raise university fees, the Lib Dem leader’s villain status transcended political animus. He entered the cultural lexicon as a byword for dishonour.
 
Most of Westminster deemed the wound fatal. Yet he will address his party’s annual conference as a man determined still to be in government after the next general election – and with reasons to think it possible. There is growing confidence in Clegg’s inner circle that parliament will stay hung after 2015. Their calculation is that Labour can mobilise enough anti-Tory energy to obstruct David Cameron but not enough enthusiasm for Ed Miliband to sweep to victory.
 
Every election campaign is a culture war between challengers pledging change and incumbents offering more of the same. Clegg is persuaded that, for the time being, grudging continuity has the edge. One lesson he has drawn from recent history is that risk-averse British electorates need exceptional reasons to evict serving governments – prolonged periods of abject failure (the Tories in the run-up to 1997), or colossal crises (the great economic bust that did for Labour in 2010). In the past 35 years, voters have handed power to the opposition only three times. As a senior Lib Dem adviser puts it: “More of the same usually wins in Britain.”
 
The Lib Dems cannot be seen to have preferences for post-election scenarios. Their line is to await the verdict of the electorate and follow the parliamentary arithmetic towards any future coalition. But in private conversations Clegg’s allies exude prejudice in favour of renewing the existing partnership with Cameron. The roseate glow of coalition’s early days has passed but so has the rancour stirred by battles over constitutional reform, leaving a workaday habit of doing business. By contrast, top Lib Dems discuss with foreboding the prospect of dealing with a Prime Minister Miliband.
 
Clegg is said by friends to have been unimpressed by the indecision he witnessed during his closest collaboration to date with the Labour leader – the negotiations over a royal charter for press regulation. Unflatteringly, comparisons are made with Cameron, with whom he can at least disagree quickly, cut a deal and move on.
 
That pro-Tory bias runs against the tide of opinion among ordinary Lib Dem members, many of whom anticipate a 2015 deal with Labour. There is deep concern that serving another term as adjuncts to the Tories would signal an irreversible centre-right alliance. It would be wrong to mistake resistance to that idea for ideological comradeship with Miliband. The Lib Dems gifted a parcel of their voters to the opposition the second they signed up to coalition. That leaves Clegg’s army numerically diminished but more resolute in its independent identity.
 
The boundary with Labour is less porous than believers in a “progressive coalition” think it ought to be. A handful of councillors have swapped sides but there have been no high-profile defections. The Lib Dems who squirm on the government benches say they feel no magnetic pull from the other side of the chamber, when Labour seems only to half-oppose benefit cuts or immigration crackdowns. “The things that make us angry with our own party are things that Labour are useless on,” says one disillusioned MP.
 
That doesn’t mean Clegg will have an easy conference.
 
There is deep unease in the grass-roots party. An army of councillors that it took decades to amass has been whittled away in local election routs. The opinion polls look permanently grim. The party’s finances are a disaster. In parliament there is impatience with the whips’ insistence on discipline for its own sake. The demand to act at all times like a serious party of government, not a flaky protest group, is losing currency – especially when Tory backbenchers treat the coalition agenda as an à la carte menu of things to back or not back, according to taste.
 
Few Lib Dems expect as savage a cull of MPs in 2015 as the opinion polls seem to forebode. The party will fight a defensive ground campaign, pooling activists in support of incumbent MPs.
 
Private polling by Clegg’s office shows that the main hurdle for voters who would consider backing the Lib Dems is a fear of accidentally lubricating either a Cameron or Miliband victory. That isn’t a great sign, because it shows how vulnerable Clegg is to being squeezed out of a campaign in which his rivals will both insist the nation faces a binary choice. The upside is that it creates fertile terrain for tactical voting.
 
The challenge for the Lib Dems is to turn that negative anxiety about who might end up in Downing Street into a positive – confidence that whoever it is can be moderated by coalition. It is what one Clegg aide calls “the leash on the dog question”.
 
Lib Dem strategists are brimming with gratitude to the two big parties for making single-party government seem an unattractive proposition. Between the vagueness of Miliband’s offer and the spectre of a Cameron administration taking dictation from rampant Tory backbenchers, the Lib Dems hope to present themselves as a hedge against either side winning outright. It is the opposite of the old “wasted vote” charge. Not the most ambitious pitch, but part of the Lib Dems’ graduation to being a grown-up party means abandoning the pretence that they campaign for anything grander than a hung parliament and junior membership of a coalition.
 
As a small party, the Lib Dems will go into the next election looking perilously short of friends. Their consolation is to have unintentionally helpful foes.
Nick Clegg arrives to speak at the Mace Montessori nursery on September 2, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Theresa May's offer to EU citizens leaves the 3 million with unanswered questions

So many EU citizens, so little time.

Ahead of the Brexit negotiations with the 27 remaining EU countries, the UK government has just published its pledges to EU citizens living in the UK, listing the rights it will guarantee them after Brexit and how it will guarantee them. The headline: all 3 million of the country’s EU citizens will have to apply to a special “settled status” ID card to remain in the UK after it exist the European Union.

After having spent a year in limbo, and in various occasions having been treated by the same UK government as bargaining chips, this offer will leave many EU citizens living in the UK (this journalist included) with more questions than answers.

Indisputably, this is a step forward. But in June 2017 – more than a year since the EU referendum – it is all too little, too late. 

“EU citizens are valued members of their communities here, and we know that UK nationals abroad are viewed in the same way by their host countries.”

These are words the UK’s EU citizens needed to hear a year ago, when they woke up in a country that had just voted Leave, after a referendum campaign that every week felt more focused on immigration.

“EU citizens who came to the UK before the EU Referendum, and before the formal Article 50 process for exiting the EU was triggered, came on the basis that they would be able to settle permanently, if they were able to build a life here. We recognise the need to honour that expectation.”

A year later, after the UK’s Europeans have experienced rising abuse and hate crime, many have left as a result and the ones who chose to stay and apply for permanent residency have seen their applications returned with a letter asking them to “prepare to leave the country”, these words seem dubious at best.

To any EU citizen whose life has been suspended for the past year, this is the very least the British government could offer. It would have sounded a much more sincere offer a year ago.

And it almost happened then: an editorial in the Evening Standard reported last week that Theresa May, then David Cameron’s home secretary, was the reason it didn’t. “Last June, in the days immediately after the referendum, David Cameron wanted to reassure EU citizens they would be allowed to stay,” the editorial reads. “All his Cabinet agreed with that unilateral offer, except his Home Secretary, Mrs May, who insisted on blocking it.” 

"They will need to apply to the Home Office for permission to stay, which will be evidenced through a residence document. This will be a legal requirement but there is also an important practical reason for this. The residence document will enable EU citizens (and their families) living in the UK to demonstrate to third parties (such as employers or providers of public services) that they have permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK."

The government’s offer lacks details in the measures it introduces – namely, how it will implement the registration and allocation of a special ID card for 3 million individuals. This “residence document” will be “a legal requirement” and will “demonstrate to third parties” that EU citizens have “permission to continue to live and work legally in the UK.” It will grant individuals ““settled status” in UK law (indefinite leave to remain pursuant to the Immigration Act 1971)”.

The government has no reliable figure for the EU citizens living in the UK (3 million is an estimation). Even “modernised and kept as smooth as possible”, the administrative procedure may take a while. The Migration Observatory puts the figure at 140 years assuming current procedures are followed; let’s be optimistic and divide by 10, thanks to modernisation. That’s still 14 years, which is an awful lot.

To qualify to receive the settled status, an individual must have been resident in the UK for five years before a specified (although unspecified by the government at this time) date. Those who have not been a continuous UK resident for that long will have to apply for temporary status until they have reached the five years figure, to become eligible to apply for settled status.

That’s an application to be temporarily eligible to apply to be allowed to stay in the UK. Both applications for which the lengths of procedure remain unknown.

Will EU citizens awaiting for their temporary status be able to leave the country before they are registered? Before they have been here five years? How individuals will prove their continuous employment or housing is undisclosed – what about people working freelance? Lodgers? Will proof of housing or employment be enough, or will both be needed?

Among the many other practicalities the government’s offer does not detail is the cost of such a scheme, although it promises to “set fees at a reasonable level” – which means it will definitely not be free to be an EU citizen in the UK (before Brexit, it definitely was.)

And the new ID will replace any previous status held by EU citizens, which means even holders of permanent citizenship will have to reapply.

Remember that 140 years figure? Doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?

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