The Lib Dems can't afford to look this ridiculous

The Rennard shambles risks undermining the graduation into a serious party of government.

Obviously it is bad for the Liberal Democrats. But how bad? The handling of sexual harassment allegations against Chris Rennard has been disorderly from the beginning of the saga. Decoding exactly when senior figures knew there was a problem and unpicking what they did – or failed to do – about it hasn’t been easy. When the story first emerged last year there was a palpable tension at the top between the desperate hope that such a substantial figure in the party machine might turn out not to be a serial sleazebag and the awkward realisation that, to some extent, he was.

The disciplinary process has now magnified that tension into an institutional crisis. The party’s inquiry found, in summary, that Rennard was not guilty of anything that a court might deem criminal but was responsible for something unspecified warranting an apology. For failing to supply that apology, Rennard is now judged to have brought the party into disrepute and has been suspended. They couldn’t take action over the fire so they’re doing him for the smoke. Now he is reported to be considering suing.

When the scandal broke last February I wrote this blog, concluding that the episode damaged the Lib Dems by making them look ridiculous when their whole strategic offer was predicated on having become a party of mature professionals. The same applies today. Lack of principle and weakness of will are two of the stains that Lib Dem strategists have toiled hardest to scrub from the tarnished brand of their party and, crucially, their leader. Nick Clegg badly needed the Rennard case to be resolved in a way that left him looking resolute, liberal and democratic. So far it isn’t playing out that way.

It is worth remembering that the original allegations about Lord Rennard and Clegg’s handling of them were fashioned by some newspapers into an aggressive campaign against the party with an undisguised agenda to sabotage their chance in the Eastleigh by-election. Yet the Lib Dems held the seat. A Force 10 tabloid gale didn’t blow them off course. It is quite possible that this time too, the impact outside Westminster will be limited. Not many people beyond SW1 will have heard of Chris Rennard or care who he is.

I suspect the political damage will be subtle and insidious rather than immediately catastrophic. The whole episode is demoralising for activists who have already suffered countless doorstep indignities and electoral beatings as a result of coalition, without the compensating glamour of ministerial offices. (As George points out, it is also a reminder of how monolithically male the Lib Dem parliamentary cohort is, which isn’t a great look for a party wanting to sell itself as guarantors of equality and opportunity.) Then there is that lingering sense that the Lib Dems have been exposed as a bunch of amateurs when their proposed election campaign pitches them as the go-to guys for steady-handed centrist government. It is also a reminder of how small the party is – Rennard loomed large, seems to have known everyone and was, by all accounts, irreplaceable – and how few friends the Lib Dems have in the media.

In coalition the Lib Dems have amplified their power by ramping up conflict with the Tories. The Conservatives have played along by complaining that the junior partner has too much influence. Clegg’s team has recently begun celebrating success in rebutting the idea that they are mere hostages in a Cameron administration. The "poodle" metaphor is losing its currency (despite efforts by Labour to keep trading on it).

The Lib Dem leader has survived longer than many commentators and MPs expected. If opinion polls continue to show stalemate between Cameron and Ed Miliband, he stands a decent chance of negotiating his way back into government in another coalition. In recognition of that resilience, the Westminster media pack had recently started showing him and his party some grudging respect. The Rennard shambles has now provided an outlet for the kind of Clegg-bashing that comes more naturally to Fleet Street.

It is notable also that the Lib Dems have taken alternate rounds of abuse from different directions in recent years – from the left as collaborators in Tory austerity; from the right as obstacles to more carnivorous cuts – but are not often pilloried simultaneously from both sides. They hope in a general election campaign to enjoy ad hoc tactical alliances with one side against the other. Clegg could gang up with Miliband to denounce Tory hard-heartedness and with Cameron to deride Labour profligacy. But it is also possible, of course, that the two main parties collude in presenting the Lib Dems as a jumped-up gaggle of self-serving chancers who were lucky enough to blag their way into power for one term and now really ought to be consigned to obscurity. In that respect, the Rennard case is a warning to the Lib Dems. If they want to campaign as a serious party of government they can’t afford these episodes of sustained ridicule. 

Nick Clegg with Danny Alexander at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

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.