Why the Tories should welcome Clegg's left turn

If they are to remain the largest party after 2015, the Conservatives need the Lib Dems to win back left-leaning voters in Tory-Labour marginals.

Conservative MPs rarely need much prompting to lament the "curse of Clegg" but the Deputy PM's broadside this week against Michael Gove's free schools "ideology" has enraged them more than most. For them, this is the worst example yet of Clegg signing up to a policy and then petulantly rejecting it when he proves unable to live with its consequences (cf. the NHS reforms, the boundary changes, childcare ratios). 

Clegg's public revolt against Gove's reforms (most notably the use of unqualified teachers by free schools and their non-use of the national curriculum), in common with his appointment of Norman Baker as Home Office minister, is part of a conscious effort to differentiate his party from the Tories ahead of the general election. With the Lib Dems still rarely polling above 10%, Clegg is increasingly focused on winning back the left-leaning voters who defected to Labour almost immediately after the coalition was formed. And, if only for electoral reasons, the Conservatives should be cheering him on. 

If they are to remain the largest party after 2015 (the possibility of a majority being too small to be worth considering), the Tories need the Lib Dems to woo Labour voters in Tory-Labour marginals. At present, after the defection of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters to Labour, they stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election (the Corby by-election 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.

This fact has often led Tories to wonder aloud whether a change of Lib Dem leader before 2015 is in their interests. The hope was that a social liberal alternative such as Vince Cable or Tim Farron 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". But the Eastleigh by-election victory, the return of economic growth and the prospect of another hung parliament have combined to secure his position. With no left-wing challenger available, the Tories should welcome the next best thing: a more left-wing Clegg. 

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.