Steve Webb speaks at the Liberal Democrat autumn conference in Birmingham in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Steve Webb is a Lib Dem set for bigger things

The reforming pensions minister is in the frame for the post of Lib Dem economic chief.

Here’s a couple of extracts from two newspapers at opposite ends of the political spectrum – the Telegraph and the Guardian - commentating on the Budget.

"The Lib Dem pensions minister, Steve Webb, has now become one of the most important people in government. A rare example of a minister who is an expert in his area, he has been pushing the pension pot liberalisation plan (which is firmly rooted in longstanding Lib Dem party policy) and the legislation on this – which he will almost certainly have to take through the Commons – may be the most important of the next session of parliament."

"One of the outstanding ministerial successes of the Coalition government has been Steve Webb, the pensions minister. Hard-working, competent and trusted by all sides, he bears a great deal of the responsibility for this Budget’s saving revolution".

Would you care to hazard a guess as to which quote comes from which newspaper? It’s hard to tell isn’t it – a rare occurrence, I imagine, when two publications with such different political and economic convictions are commenting on a Budget. But a huge compliment to Steve Webb, who is rightly lauded on both sides of the house as an expert in the field, especially as the architect for the earlier pension reforms in this parliament.

Two weeks ago there was a flurry of speculation about who would get the Lib Dem economic brief for the general election campaign. Will it be Danny, five years as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, or Mystic Vince, the man with the Midas touch on the economy and the canny turn of phrase ("Stalin to Mr. Bean")? 

Now, suddenly, there’s a new name in the frame for that plummiest of jobs in an election campaign. And I can’t help but wonder if it wasn’t just happenstance that Nick Clegg asked Webb to propose the "difficult" debate on the economy at last year's autumn conference – the one where, for a while, it looked like Vince wouldn’t turn up at all. At the time it seemed a slightly leftfield choice – now it suddenly looks like there actually be a bit of a plan.

Steve Webb has been one of the best kept secrets within the Lib Dems for quite a while now, consistently rated by activists as one of our star performers in government, yet largely unknown by the public at large. I suspect that’s all about to change.

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

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

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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