The Lib Dems' shift left could be more dangerous for the Tories than Labour

With the Tories his party's main electoral foe, Clegg is seeking to woo the One Nation voters alienated by the Conservatives' UKIP tendency.

Chris Huhne has ventured in Juncture magazine that any Labour/Lib Dem coalition after the next election is likely to be based upon common agreement in the policy areas of tax, the environment and housing. Which would be grand if he’s right, as Lib Dem members seem to think that these three areas (plus jobs) should form the four key pillars of the 2015 manifesto.

And indeed the received wisdom is that Nick has moved left (much to the chagrin of certain high profile MPs) - remember the long list of things we’ve stopped the Tories doing in government announced at conference, the free school meals announcement, the agreement to look again at secret courts post 2015, the apparent acceptance that the bedroom tax might not be the best idea since sliced bread...

The differentiation strategy is in full swing and it looks like Nick has heeded the advice of Tim Farron when he said of left-leaning Lib Dem voters from 2010: "The people who are most likely to vote for you next time are the people who voted for you last time...You don’t write people off, they’re there to be persuaded to come back, or rather stay with us". 

So, it’s all guns blazing on the swing to the left. Or is it? I wonder if there isn’t another thought in the minds of Great George Street folk.

We’ve already tacitly accepted that 2015 is going to be tough for the Lib Dems and we’re in defensive mode. The second place party in the majority of our seats is the Tories, not Labour (38 vs. 19). Of our top 50 target seats, the majority are Tory. Of the 13 seats we lost in 2010 – in theory, the easiest for us to win back – no less than 10 fell to Tories.

Which is why I suspect what’s going on is less a lurch to the left but a small veer, designed to appeal to One Nation Tories alienated by the UKIP tendency in the Conservatives that seems to be in the ascendency. The sort of person who cares about the environment, who bought into "vote blue, go green" and now feels a little let down. The sort of voter who benefits most from the rise in the income tax threshold. The sort of voter who cares quite a lot about house prices and home ownership. The sort of voter Nick Boles had in mind when he suggested it might be time for a revival of the National Liberal Party – before it was pointed out that there already is one…

The environment. Tax. Housing. It’s what we’ll be fighting the next election on. But I wonder if it’s an agenda that should give David Cameron more sleepless nights that Ed Miliband?

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.