David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband listen to Angela Merkel address both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Where Clegg and Farage agree: Cameron's EU renegotiation plan is a fantasy

It will become harder for the PM to insist he can succeed when the europhile and the europhobe both declare he will fail.

Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have recently encouraged voters to view them as dialectical opposites: Clegg represents "the party of in", Farage the "party of out" (the pair will soon debate each other on these terms). But it's worth highlighting one point on which the two leaders agree: David Cameron's EU renegotiation plan is a fantasy. Back in November 2012, Clegg said of his coalition partner's ambition to repatriate powers from Brussels: 

I want to focus on a proposal doing the rounds – that the best way to improve the UK's position in Europe is to renegotiate the terms of our relationship with the rest of the EU. We should opt out of the bad bits, stay opted into the good bits, and the way to do that is a repatriation of British powers.

That seems reasonable. In fact it's a pretty seductive offer – who would disagree with that?

But look a little closer. Because a grand, unilateral repatriation of powers might sound appealing. But in reality it is a false promise wrapped in a union jack.

Today, at UKIP's Spring Conference, Farage used strikingly similar language to deride Cameron's plan: 

What actually Angela Merkel exposed yesterday is that renegotiation, fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, is something that has been put up by David Cameron to kick the issue into the long grass beyond the next general election. It is not obtainable. It is not achievable. Renegotiation is a con.

For Clegg, renegotiation is "a false promise"; for Farage, it's "a con". Angela Merkel, the woman who the Tories have pinned their hopes on, said nothing during her visit to Westminster to suggest either is wrong (as Rafael wrote yesterday). None of the changes the the German Chancellor cited, such as new rules to prevent "benefit tourism", and greater deregulation and subsidiarity, come close to the grand repatriation (the single market without "all the other stuff", in the words of Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom) that Tory eurosceptics crave (although many merely support renegotiation as a prelude to full withdrawal). The uncomfortable truth for Cameron, as Merkel signalled yesterday, is that there will be no special status for Britain. As she said in her speech to MPs and peers: "Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I’m afraid they are in for a disappointment."

The message was clear: in a union of 28, there can be no cherry-picking. It is true, as Cameron likes to point out, that UK enjoys opt-outs from the single currency and the Schengen zone. But since Britain was never a member of either to begin with, this is not a precedent for repatriation. Were the EU to grant the UK special treatment, the single market would risk unravelling as other member states made similarly self-interested demands. Tory MPs' vision of an à la carte Europe in which Britain, alone among the EU 28, is able to pick and choose which laws it obeys, is one rejected by all those with any significant influence over the outcome.  

Cameron, who has been careful not to publish a "shopping list" of demands (for fear that it will be rejected as insufficient by eurosceptics), is likely to emphasise again that no one goes into a renegotiation "hoping and expecting to fail". But when two figures as polarised as Clegg and Farage, declare alike that he will, it will become even harder to maintain this pretence. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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We don't need to build more prisons - we need to send fewer people there

The government talks a good game on prisons - but at the moment, the old failed policies hold sway

Some years ago the Howard League set up an independent expert review of what should happen to the penal system. We called it Do better, do less.

Too many governments have come in with enthusiasm for doing more, in the mistaken belief that this means better. We have ended up with more prisons, more prisoners, a bulging system that costs a fortune and blights lives. It is disappointing that the new regime appears to have fallen into the same old trap.

It is a big mistake to imagine that the justice system can be asked to sort out people’s lives. Prisons rarely, very rarely, turn people into model citizens able to get a great job and settle with a family. It is naïve to think that building huge new prisons with fewer staff but lots of classrooms will help to ‘rehabilitate’ people.

Let’s turn this on its head. There are more than 80,000 men in prison at any one time, and 40,000 of them are serving long sentences. Simply giving them a few extra courses or getting them to do a bit more work at £10 a week means they are still reliant on supplementary funding from families. Imagine you are the wife or partner of a man who is serving five to ten years. Why should you welcome him back to your home and your bed after all that time if you have hardly been able to see him, you got one phone call a week, and he’s spent all those years in a highly macho environment?

The message of new prisons providing the answer to all our problems has been repeated ad nauseam. New Labour embarked on a massive prison-building programme with exactly the same message that was trotted out in the Spending Review today – that new buildings will solve all our problems. Labour even looked at selling off Victorian prisons but found it too complicated as land ownership is opaque. It is no surprise that, despite trumpeting the sell-off of Victorian prisons, the one that was announced was in fact a jail totally rebuilt in the 1980s, Holloway.

The heart of the problem is that too many people are sent to prison, both on remand and under sentence. Some 70 per cent of the people remanded to prison by magistrates do not get a prison sentence and tens of thousands get sentenced to a few weeks or months. An erroneous diagnosis of the problem has led to expensive and ineffective policy responses. I am disappointed that yet again the Ministry of Justice is apparently embarking on expansion instead of stemming the flow into the system.

A welcome announcement is the court closure programme and investment in technology. Perhaps, in the end, fewer courts will choke the flow of people into the system, but I am not optimistic.

It is so seductive for well-meaning ministers to want to sort out people’s lives. But this is not the way to do it. Homeless people stealing because they are hungry (yes, it is happening more and more) are taking up police and court time and ending up in prison. We all know that mentally ill people comprise a substantial proportion of the prison population. It is cheaper, kinder and more efficacious to invest in front line services that prevent much of the crime that triggers a criminal justice intervention.

That does leave a cohort of men who have committed serious and violent crime and will be held in custody for public safety reasons. This is where I agree with recent announcements that prison needs to be transformed. The Howard League has developed a plan for this, allowing long-term prisoners to work and earn a real wage.

The spending review was an opportunity to do something different and to move away from repeating the mistakes of the past. There is still time; we have a radical Justice Secretary whose rhetoric is redemptive and compassionate. I hope that he has the courage of these convictions.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.