Why the Lib Dems need to start drawing red lines now

To win back trust, Clegg needs to spend the next 548 days telling voters about his policy guarantees.

While the phrase "we’re all in this together" has become rather devalued in political circles of late, it’s still very much in vogue in the Liberal Democrats. Over here, we’re pretty much up to our necks in it together, and the spirit of party democracy still burns brightly.

Thus the general election call to arms has taken place and we’ve all been invited to submit our contributions and ideas to the 2015 manifesto. I can only imagine what it must be like for the poor souls on the receiving end of our missives. But, hey, that’s party democracy for you.

In reference to this, the suggestion has been made that we should avoid setting out any manifesto red lines at this stage. Prompted by Nick’s resolute defence of the HS2 project (and the inevitable is it 'a red line?' question, given Labour's vacillations), Lib Dem Voice has wondered out loud about this:

"'Red lines' are tricky territory for our politicians. If Nick says, implicitly or explicitly, that HS2 (or any other policy) is a red line then he’s limiting his room for manoeuvre in any coalition negotiations. And after the party’s scarring experience of the tuition fees U-turn, we can hardly afford to offer more hostages to fortune by making categoric promises we find ourselves unable to keep."

I couldn’t disagree more. I think we need some red lines drawn ASAP.

Firstly, I think we need to do this because of the tuition fees U-turn. Trust is the main obstacle we face. We shouldn’t shy away from it. We should acknowledge it (and indeed, we’ve already had a mea culpa moment), state the lesson we’ve learned and put down some markers to judge us by. Tackle the trust issue head on.

Secondly, given Nick has already accepted that for us to remain in government means another coalition, the manifesto will turn into a 'two parter' – three or four policies that we guarantee voters will get if they vote Lib Dem, with the rest of the manifesto a statement of wishes and aspirations that will form our side of the collation negotiations. We have form on this – the 2010 manifesto clearly stated our four priorities, and those have formed the cornerstone of everything we’ve done in government. We need to state our four priorities this time – and give ourselves the maximum time possible to hammer that message home.

Why? Because of my third issue. Our (in my view misguided) 'two halves to the Parliament' strategy means we spent the first half of this government joined to the hip with the Tories, alienating many of our supporters from the left. Now we’ve embarked on our full throttle differentiation strategy, we’re hell bent on alienating those on the right. As the eminent Lib Dem blogger Jonathan Calder puts it: "I suspect that the problem here is his (Nick Clegg’s) often-declared strategy of making the Liberal Democrats a centre party. Because being such a party can easily turn you into the champions of the status quo and thus the opponent of anyone who proposes radical reforms. And, as so often, I wonder who Nick expects to vote Liberal Democrat next time."

The answer to the problem he poses is, of course, that we need to set out some chunky, bite-size, easily understood policy built on principle and spend the next 548 days telling voters 'here are our rock solid guarantees'. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being the centre party per se – it’s the zigzag on positioning that, ahem, confuses folk

Will these policies become hostages to fortune? Sure, but at least everyone would know the price of the ransom – and then they can decide whether they want to pay it.

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 Buhler Sortex factory on October 8, 2013 in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Getty Images.
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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.