Liberal Democrat MP Lorley Burt walks on stage wearing a Nigel Farage mask at the party's spring conference in York. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Westminster is in thrall to the cult of Farage – but Clegg knows that most voters see through it

There are far more people who don’t vote Ukip than do, including many who despise pub-bore nationalism.

David Cameron has handled Ukip like an intimate rash. There was an itch he couldn’t help scratching but scratching only made it worse. Now he is trying to ignore it in the hope it will go away.

He certainly doesn’t want to talk about it. The Prime Minister aims to reach the general election in May 2015 without sharing a platform with Nigel Farage or even uttering his name. Downing Street hopes that Ukip’s popularity will peak at the local council and European Parliament elections this May, if not before. Meanwhile, Cameron’s strategy is to avoid gratuitously offending the party’s supporters.

For Ed Miliband, the relationship is more complex. His instincts are antithetical to those of Farage but their interests are tactically aligned. Currently, Ukip poaches more votes from ex-Conservatives than from disgruntled Labourites in vital marginal seats, so the longer the Farage phenomenon endures, the likelier it is that the Labour leader ends up in No 10.

To the extent that Labour has a strategy for dealing with Ukip voters, it is to sympathise with their rage while steering blame away from migrants and benefit claimants. A Labour government that guarantees jobs, higher wages and affordable homes is expected to neutralise resentment of foreigners for supposedly driving down pay and colonising council houses. That is a theory to explain when Farage might go away, not a campaign to see him off.

So there is a vacancy for someone who will confront the Ukip leader on his own terms. Nick Clegg has awarded himself that honour. The Liberal Democrat leader used a speech at his party’s spring conference on 9 March to express a brand of liberal patriotism celebrating a “modern, open, tolerant” Britain that tends to want to be part of Europe, as distinct from a fearful and reactionary blend of Little England nostalgia that wants out. Clegg will debate the merits of Britain’s EU membership with Farage live on television in April.

Lib Dem strategists are not expecting the party to be buoyed by some great surge of enthusiasm for Brussels. They note only that a liberal Europhile position currently polls better than Clegg (as do many things). Since the party shed much of its core support by forming a coalition with the Tories, it needs to recruit a new cohort of voters. Salvation depends on finding people who agree with Nick and just don’t know it yet.

This plan isn’t entirely delusional. Liberal dismay at the main parties’ craven response to Farage extends beyond the question of Europe. The Ukip leader has enjoyed privileged media status as a spicy character in an otherwise bland political drama and as the incarnation of public loathing of politicians. Fringe idiocy in Ukip’s ranks has not escaped ridicule but there is in Westminster a strain of self-hating deference to the party’s voters, as if their jaundiced view of modern Britain were more authentic than other political opinions. In reality, there are far more people who don’t vote Ukip than do, including many who despise pub-bore nationalism. Just as the Ukip leader wants to channel anti-establishment anger, Clegg wants to channel a cosmopolitan backlash against the cult of Farage.

It is worth a try. The Lib Dems have been supremely disciplined through successive local election ravages – but their patience is not infinite. Clegg has so far managed to avert despair with the argument that it is better to be harried in office than to be irrelevant in opposition. Since another hung parliament looks plausible after the next election, there is always hope of staying in power.

There are Labour and Tory MPs who assert with bitter confidence that Clegg, as a likely coalition kingmaker, has more reason than Miliband or Cameron to be sure of being in power after 2015. That calculation rests on the record of tenacious Lib Dem incumbents in fortified bastion seats bucking a national trend. It also presumes that, since the party has been bumping along the bottom for three years, the only way is up.

To sustain that story, Clegg needs to show some progress in May, although abject defeat would probably not provoke a leadership challenge. The party’s regicidal impulse, once so quick, has been numbed by the duty to look responsible in government. It would be roused only by a general election catastrophe.

It helps that expectations of Lib Dem performance are so low. Clegg’s office is happy to keep them that way. Senior aides present the debates with Farage in modest terms, as an opportunity to get a neglected pro-EU argument across, rather than some prizefight in which Europhobia might be dealt a knockout blow. At best, the Lib Dems hope to add a few points to their vote share over the coming months, dragging it into the mid-teens from single-digit ignominy and avoiding the eviction of every one of the party’s MEPs from Strasbourg.

Besides, Ukip support is about a lot more than Europe. Farage’s voters are recruited from across the political spectrum and animated by a complex of resentments, insecurities and prejudices. They nurture a feeling that politicians have conspired to turn Britain into a place that suits metropolitan elites. Clegg’s contention is that more people are happy with the current complexion of the country than Farage is letting on and that some of them are frustrated by what they see as tacit endorsement by Miliband and Cameron of the Ukip gripe.

The Lib Dems can’t realistically expect to convert that sentiment into enthusiasm for their party. They just need to borrow some votes in May to make a point. Or rather, by standing as the very opposite of Farage, they hope to bring some clarity to the enduring mystery in many voters’ minds of what might be the point of Nick Clegg.

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

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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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.