If the Tories lose the next election, Clegg must leave with them

To allow the Liberal Democrats to swap sides without incurring any penalty would offend the essential order of our democracy.

I’ve nothing against dogs in general. In fact, I’ve always fancied owning a Staffy. But I’m not fond of poodles. So I nearly choked when Ed Balls hinted at a possible liaison with Nick Clegg, the biggest poodle of all. Our shadow chancellor thinks he could work with the Lib Dem leader in a coalition. It seems Nick and Ed have had a cosy chat recently, and Ed is acting like he’s found a new best friend. They’ve even been indulging in playful teasing on Twitter.

What really gives me the shivers is Ed’s bold assertion that he has “no reason to doubt [Clegg’s] integrity.” Really? What about the “small” matter of tuition fees where Nick betrayed millions of voters? Or his U-turn on reducing the number of digital gambling machines in bookies? One minute he’s backing a campaign to introduce curbs, the next he’s refusing to act, no doubt after a quiet word from the prime minister.

Besides, the shadow chancellor is getting ahead of himself by talking about a coalition at this stage in the game. My personal position is that it’s always preferable to have a decisive outcome in a general election. So it’s a mistake for Labour to get distracted by any talk of coalition. Let’s not give voters a sense of defeatism before the 2015 election posters have even been printed. Instead, let’s focus on fighting as hard as we can for a majority by listening to the concerns and needs of voters. Obviously Labour has a duty to try and form a government if the voters of the UK deliver an indecisive result by some quirk of electoral arithmetic. Yet if the Tories are thrown out of office, it is abundantly clear that Nick Clegg is the person most responsible for propping up a failed administration that did not carry a decisive mandate.

One of the strengths of our electoral system is this: you can heave a party out of office. To allow the Lib Dems to swap sides without incurring any penalty, in effect, feels like it offends the essential order of our democracy. Someone will have to take responsibility for the failures of the current coalition before the Lib Dems could form a coalition on a very different programme of renewed national purpose. 

The man with shared responsibility for those failures is Nick Clegg. Which is why he should go as Lib Dem leader as the price for coalition. There are plenty of people who could take his place. I'm probably in a minority of one in thinking that the Lib Dems should bring back Charlie Kennedy. But there are others who can hold down the job of Lib Dem leader. Vince Cable would be a good choice for example, or Danny Alexander even.

I know Nick’s supporters have tried to promote him as an attack dog rather than a poodle. But let’s face it, he shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice of a mutt they can count on to protect their rights. Clegg has become Mr Toxic, a leader tainted by association with David Cameron and the Tory leader’s “kick the poor, protect the rich” policies. His own MPs are clearly depressed by his lapdog-like behaviour. Sarah Teather has even decided to stand down because of the direction in which her leader is taking the party.

If we do end up without a majority at the next election, then Nick Clegg isn’t the right Lib Dem to go into government with. It’s a price this country shouldn’t have to pay again for democracy.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg visit Wandsworth Day Nursery on 19 March 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.
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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.