Nick Clegg arrives at the BBC studios ahead of his second debate with Nigel Farage over EU membership on April 02, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour demands investigation into Clegg's special adviser Ryan Coetzee

Party writes to Jeremy Heywood asking whether Coetzee's involvement in Lib Dem election strategy has breached the special advisers' code of conduct.

After previously gunning for the Conservatives' election campaign chief Lynton Crosby over his links to the tobacco industry, Labour has found a new target in the form of Nick Clegg's director of strategy Ryan Coetzee. The former South African MP, who took up the post in September 2012, is often compared with Crosby but unlike him is paid entirely from the public purse (earning £110,000 a year). It is this that Labour has taken issue with, noting his involvement in Liberal Democrat election strategy and private polling for the party. The special advisers' code of conduct states that "special advisers should not use official resources for party political activity".

Clegg said at his monthly press conference yesterday: "We’ve done it by the book and it’s not unusual for politicians in government to get support on what are the main concerns of the British public and how can we address them in government. That’s exactly what we’re doing."

A Lib Dem spokesman said: "A key part of his role as director of strategy is to ensure that all government messaging strictly reflects the Lib Dems and Lib Dem priorities. He is a special adviser so he is paid out of public funds. The salaries are all transparent and published on the internet."

But those answers haven't satisfied Labour with MP Sheila Gilmore writing to cabinet secretary Jeremy Heywood demanding that he investigate whether the code of conduct may have been broken. Here's her letter in full.

Dear Sir Jeremy,

 

Following reports that Mr Ryan Coetzee, Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister, is employed to work on the Liberal Democrats’ election planning and has been conducting political polling on their behalf, I am writing to express the concern that his actions may be in breach of the Special Advisers Code of Conduct, and to ask you to investigate.

 

As you will know, the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct states:

 

‘Special advisers should not use official resources for party political activity. They are employed to serve the objectives of the Government and the Department in which they work. It is this which justifies their being paid from public funds and being able to use public resources, and explains why their participation in party politics is carefully limited…They should avoid anything which might reasonably lead to the criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes.’

 

The Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, Cabinet Office, 2010, p.3

 

If Mr Coetzee is working on issues concerning the Liberal Democrats’ election strategy rather than the objectives of the Cabinet Office, where he is employed on the public payroll, this would appear a breach of the code.

 

In recognition of the importance of upholding public trust in political appointments, I hope that you will be able to confirm beyond all doubt that the code has not been broken and will in particular be able to answer the following questions:

 

-          Could you specify what political activity has been undertaken by Mr Coetzee on behalf of the Liberal Democrats during his time employed as Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister, and in each instance what steps were taken to ensure the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers was followed?

 

-          What polling exercises has Mr Coetzee conducted in his capacity as Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister to which public funds were committed?

 

-          How many meetings has Mr Coetzee attended at Liberal Democrat Offices in Great George St during his period employed in his capacity as Special Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister, at what times and dates, and what steps have been taken to ensure the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers has been followed?

 

It would rightly be extremely concerning if the Liberal Democrats were exploiting public resources and the important role played by Special Advisers to further party political interests rather than government objectives.

 

I look forward to your response.

 

Yours sincerely,

 

 

Sheila Gilmore

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Here's what Theresa May could say to save the Brexit talks

The best option would be to invent a time machine, but unfortunately that's not on the table. 

One of my favourite types of joke is the logical impossibility: a statement that seems plausible but, on closer examination, is simply impossible and contradictory. “If you break both legs, don’t come running to me” is one. The most famous concerns a hapless tourist popping into a pub to ask for directions to London, or Manchester, or Belfast or wherever. “Well,” the barman replies, “I wouldn’t have started from here.”

That’s the trouble, too, with assessing what the government should do next in its approach to the Brexit talks: I wouldn’t have started from here.

I wouldn’t have started from a transient Leave campaign that offered a series of promises that can’t be reconciled with one another, but that’s the nature of a referendum in which the government isn’t supporting the change proposition. It’s always in the interest of the change proposition to be at best flexible and at worst outright disregarding of the truth.

Britain would be better off if it were leaving the European Union after a vote in which a pro-Brexit government had already had to prepare a white paper and an exit strategy before seeking popular consent. Now the government is tasked with negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union with a mandate that is contradictory and unclear. (Take immigration. It’s clear that a majority of people who voted to leave want control over Britain’s borders. But it’s also clear that a minority did not and if you take that minority away, there’s no majority for a Leave vote.

Does that then mean that the “democratic” option is a Brexit that prioritises minimising economic harm at the cost of continuing free movement of people? That option might command more support than the 52 per cent that Leave got but it also runs roughshod over the concerns that really drove Britain’s Leave vote.

You wouldn’t, having had a referendum in inauspicious circumstances, have a government that neglected to make a big and genuinely generous offer on the rights of the three million citizens of the European Union currently living in the United Kingdom.

In fact the government would have immediately done all it could to show that it wanted to approach exit in a constructive and co-operative manner. Why? Because the more difficult it looks like the departing nation is going to be, the greater the incentive the remaining nations of the European Union have to insist that you leave via Article 50. Why? Because the Article 50 process is designed to reduce the leverage of the departing state through its strict timetable. Its architect, British diplomat John Kerr, envisaged it being used after an increasingly authoritarian state on the bloc’s eastern periphery found its voting rights suspended and quit “in high dudgeon”.

The strict timeframe also hurts the European Union, as it increases the chances of an unsatisfactory or incomplete deal. The only incentive to use it is if the departing nation is going to behave in a unconstructive way.

Then if you were going to have to exit via the Article 50 process, you’d wait until the elections in France and Germany were over, and restructure Whitehall and the rest of the British state so it was fit to face the challenges of Brexit. And you wouldn’t behave so shabbily towards the heads of the devolved administrations that Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Carwyn Jones of the Welsh Labour Party have not become political allies.

So having neglected to do all of that, it’s hard to say: here’s what Theresa May should say in Florence, short of inventing time travel and starting the whole process again from scratch.

What she could do, though, is show flexibility on the question of British contributions to the European budget after we leave, and present a serious solution to the problem of how you ensure that the rights of three million EU citizens living in Britain have a legal backdrop that can’t simply be unpicked by 325 MPs in the House of Commons, and show some engagement in the question of what happens to the Irish border after Brexit.

There are solutions to all of these problems – but the trouble is that all of them are unacceptable to at least part of the Conservative Party. A reminder that, as far as the trouble with Brexit goes, Theresa May is the name of the monster – not the doctor. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.