Why Clegg's head is no longer the price of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition

With Labour uncertain of winning a majority and the Deputy PM certain to be around in May 2015, Miliband and Balls can no longer afford to treat him as a barrier to an agreement.

In the aftermath of the 2010 general election, senior Labour figures wasted little time in signalling that Nick Clegg's departure would be a precondition of any future Labour-Lib Dem coalition. As Ed Miliband told the New Statesman in August 2010: "Given what he is supporting, I think it is pretty hard to go into coalition with him." Asked again, "so you wouldn't work with Nick Clegg?", he replied: "That's right. No."

Ed Balls similarly suggested that there was little or no prospect of Labour working with Clegg, stating as recently as September 2012: "Nick Clegg made his decisions and I think the way he’s gone about his politics makes things very difficult [to form a coalition with him]". Just as Clegg demanded Gordon Brown's head in 2010, so Labour would demand his if it won in 2015. 

But as my interview with Balls in this week's NS revealed, the shadow chancellor has had a dramatic change of heart. After telling me that he had a "friendly chat" with the Deputy PM in the Commons a few hours before we met, he said of the possibility of a coalition with Clegg: 

I think what you always have to do is deal with politics as you find it. We’re fighting hard for a majority, who knows how things will turn out, I think, look, very many Labour Party members, voters, supporters, would find that very difficult and some Liberal Democrat voters would find that very difficult as well, but we’ll deal with the situation as we find it. I saw that subsequently he made a further statement to one of the newspapers that these things weren’t about personalities, and I think he’s right about that.

While criticising Clegg's support for an accelerated deficit reduction programme in 2010, for the abolition of the 50p tax rate and for the bedroom tax, he also told me that he "understood" his decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives and his need to support "a credible deficit reduction plan", because "it was necessary in 2010". 

Miliband has not gone as far as Balls in seeking rapprochement with the Lib Dem leader, but it is notable that he no longer suggests that his departure would essential for a coalition agreement between the two parties. Last summer, for instance, he told the Independent, "I would find it difficult to work with him", which is some distance from the unambiguous "no" he offered in 2010. 

So what's changed? First, Labour's poll lead is no longer large enough for the party to be confident of winning a majority in 2015. At the end of 2012, its average lead in YouGov surveys stood at 10 points, it now stands at six with over a year still to go until the general election. As a result, Labour cannot afford to ignore the significant possibility of another hung parliament and of coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems. One shadow minister recently told me that he had been encouraged to look for "points of agreement" with the Lib Dems and to consider constitutional reforms that would appeal to the party, citing the example of proportional representation for local elections. 

Second, Clegg is now almost certain to lead his party into the general election. Until last year's Eastleigh by-election (defeat in which would likely have been terminal for the Deputy PM) and the humbling of Vince Cable at the 2013 Lib Dem conference, it was far from clear that this would be the case. As Balls told the Times in September 2012: "I would be very surprised if Nick Clegg fights the next election for the Liberal Democrats — I don’t think it’s in the Liberal Democrat or the national interest."

But the Eastleigh victory, which reassured the Lib Dems that they are not destined for electoral wipeout in 2015, and the return of economic growth, which raised hopes that they could derive some political benefit from the coalition, combined to shore up Clegg's position. The Lib Dems' subsequent decision to endorse his stances on deficit reduction, tuition fees and the 50p tax at their conference finally confirmed him as master of his party. 

Third, defining politics by individuals, rather than ideas, sits uneasily with the more principled approach that Miliband is a tireless advocate of. It is not personalities but policies that will determine how and whether Labour strikes a deal with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament. As Harriet Harman recently noted, Clegg and Miliband have worked together on issues including the boundary changes and press regulation. She said on Question Time: "He's [Miliband] worked with him on, for example, tackling the problems of all the phone-hacking and the Tories trying to rig the boundaries, so actually when we've put forward a proposal that the Lib Dems are prepared to support then they do work with us."

Labour MPs have been struck by the increasing degree of policy overlap between the two parties. In the last year, Labour has called for the introduction of a mansion tax on property values above £2m, a 2030 decarbonisation target for electricity, the removal of Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, higher capital investment (in preference to a temporary VAT cut) funded by a rise in borrowing, and a reduction in the voting age to 16. What all of these policies have in common is that they have all either been proposed or championed by the Lib Dems.

This is far from the only motive for their adoption but Miliband and Balls are too shrewd not to know that this shift will greatly enhance their chances of reaching an agreement with the third party in 2015. One of the most popular reads among Labour MPs last summer was Andrew Adonis's 5 Days in May in which the Labour peer and former transport secretary laments the party's failure to prepare for the 2010 hung parliament and urges it not to repeat this error. His advice has not been ignored. 

In response to the voting age pledge, Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams remarked: "If we can bank that as an agreement then if the next parliament does result in an inconclusive election, which I think is quite likely, the more issues that we know in advance that we're likely to agree on will make the negotiations swifter." His parliamentary colleagues are saying much the same thing. 

In 2010, the thought of Clegg and Miliband ever working together in government after 2015 seemed fantastical. But as so often in politics (recall that David Cameron described Clegg as his "favourite joke" before the 2010 election), all sides have been forced to think again. 

Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband attend a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.