Why Clegg could still face a leadership challenge next year

Lib Dem activists suggest that Clegg's position could still come under threat if the party finishes fourth or fifth in next year's European elections.

By any measure, Nick Clegg is having a good conference. He has won major votes on the economy, tuition fees, nuclear power, the 50p tax rate and Trident, confirming the Lib Dems' new status as a party of the "radical centre". These triumphs both reflect and reinforce Clegg's improved standing as leader. The Eastleigh by-election, which convinced the Lib Dems that they aren't facing wipeout in 2015, and the return of economic growth, which the party hopes to earn some credit for, means that talk of a leadership challenge by Vince Cable or anyone else has largely disappeared.

But speak to Lib Dems and you get the impression that Clegg's position isn't completely secure yet. One senior party activist told me that he could still face a challenge if the party performs particularly badly in next year's local and European elections, warning that "we could come fifth behind the Greens". Such a result would mean the loss of most or all of the party's nine MEPs. With a year to go until the general election, there would still be just enough time for the Lib Dems to contemplate a change of leader.

As Lord Oakeshott, one of those who would lead the revolt, noted in his pre-conference interview: "This will be much the biggest test we’ve had on a nationwide basis of our support and our appeal since the general election, so that’s why it will be crunch time. There will be no excuse when everyone has been voting, particularly in important areas like London. I think that’s when everyone will focus on things and I hope we will have a good hard look at our prospects for the election. There will still be time, but next May/June will be the last chance."

One group that hopes the Lib Dems might yet oust Clegg is the Tories. If it they are to win the next election, the Conservatives needs a Lib Dem leader who can win over Labour voters in Tory-Labour marginals. At present, after the defection of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters to Labour, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election (Corby was an early warning) -  there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory.

The belief among the Tories is that a more centre-left figure such as Cable or Tim Farron, both of whom have signalled their availability, could prompt the party's former supporters to return home from Labour. Tim Montgomerie told me last year that "a left-wing replacement" of Clegg in 2014 was "vital to Tory hopes". Fortunately for Ed Miliband, the chances of him facing a new Lib Dem leader in 2015 have fallen further after Clegg's victories this week.

Nick Clegg on stage at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.