Patrick Mercer pictured leaving his parliamentary office in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Patrick Mercer resigns and triggers by-election - is this Ukip's moment?

If Farage chooses to stand, his party could have a genuine chance of winning a Westminster seat for the first time.

After the decision of the Standards Committee to suspend him from parliament for six months over cash-for-questions allegations, former Tory MP Patrick Mercer, who currently sits as an independent, has just announced his resignation. He told reporters on College Green:

I'm an ex-soldier and I believe that when I've got something wrong, you've got to fess up and get on with it, no point in shilly-shallying, what's happened has happened and I'm ashamed of it.

Therefore, I'm going to do what I can to put it right for the constituency of Newark, I'm a Newark man, I haven't lived in Newark for any political expediency, to put it right for my family, my wife, who's been under such pressure for the last year, and to make it quite clear that I argue with nothing that the committee has said, or may not have said, because I still don't know officially what has been said.

But with a great heaviness of heart, and I'm hoping that the people of Newark in Nottinghamshire will be able to tolerate me in the future, I'm hoping that they will, I'm going to resign my seat in God's county of Nottinghamshire in the town of Newark, and I hope that my successor, who has been well and carefully chosen, will be the Conservative candidate. Thank you very much indeed, ladies and gentlemen, thank you.

We can now look forward to what politicos have been craving for months: a by-election in a Conservative-held seat that Ukip could conceivably win. Nigel Farage has already hinted that he is prepared to stand, provided that the contest does not take place on the same day as the European elections. Since it is too late for the writ to be moved in time for 22 May, this condition will be met (the earliest possible date for the by-election is 5 June).

Mercer currently has a comfortable majority of 16,152 (31.5 per cent) in the seat, which the Tories have held since 2001 (Labour won it in 1997), and Ukip polled just 3.8 per cent, finishing fourth, in 2010. But the dramatic surge in support for the party since then, and the circumstances of Mercer's resignation, mean an upset cannot be ruled out. In last year's county council elections, Ukip won 17.1 per cent of the vote in the Newark & Sherwood District. If Farage does go for the seat, harnessing the momentum that would follow a Ukip victory in the European elections, his party could have a genuine chance of winning a Westminster seat for the first time.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The three avoidable mistakes that Theresa May has made in the Brexit negotiations

She ignored the official Leave campaign, and many Remainers, in pursuing Brexit in the way she has.

We shouldn’t have triggered Article 50 at all before agreeing an exit deal

When John Kerr, the British diplomat who drafted Article 50 wrote it, he believed it would only be used by “a dictatorial regime” that, having had its right to vote on EU decisions suspended “would then, in high dudgeon, want to storm out”.

The process was designed to maximise the leverage of the remaining members of the bloc and disadvantage the departing state. At one stage, it was envisaged that any country not ratifying the Lisbon Treaty would be expelled under the process – Article 50 is not intended to get “the best Brexit deal” or anything like it.

Contrary to Theresa May’s expectation that she would be able to talk to individual member states, Article 50 is designed to ensure that agreement is reached “de vous, chez vous, mais sans vous” – “about you, in your own home, but without you”, as I wrote before the referendum result.

There is absolutely no reason for a departing nation to use Article 50 before agreement has largely been reached. A full member of the European Union obviously has more leverage than one that is two years away from falling out without a deal. There is no reason to trigger Article 50 until you’re good and ready, and the United Kingdom’s negotiating team is clearly very far from either being “good” or “ready”.

As Dominic Cummings, formerly of Vote Leave, said during the campaign: “No one in their right mind would begin a legally defined two-year maximum period to conduct negotiations before they actually knew, roughly speaking, what the process was going to yield…that would be like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger.”

If we were going to trigger Article 50, we shouldn’t have triggered it when we did

As I wrote before Theresa May triggered Article 50 in March, 2017 is very probably the worst year you could pick to start leaving the European Union. Elections across member states meant the bloc was in a state of flux, and those elections were always going to eat into the time. 

May has got lucky in that the French elections didn’t result in a tricky “co-habitation” between a president of one party and a legislature dominated by another, as Emmanuel Macron won the presidency and a majority for his new party, République en Marche.

It also looks likely that Angela Merkel will clearly win the German elections, meaning that there won’t be a prolonged absence of the German government after the vote in September.

But if the British government was determined to put the gun in its own mouth and pull the trigger, it should have waited until after the German elections to do so.

The government should have made a unilateral offer on the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom right away

The rights of the three million people from the European Union in the United Kingdom were a political sweet spot for Britain. We don’t have the ability to enforce a cut-off date until we leave the European Union, it wouldn’t be right to uproot three million people who have made their lives here, there is no political will to do so – more than 80 per cent of the public and a majority of MPs of all parties want to guarantee the rights of EU citizens – and as a result there is no plausible leverage to be had by suggesting we wouldn’t protect their rights.

If May had, the day she became PM, made a unilateral guarantee and brought forward legislation guaranteeing these rights, it would have bought Britain considerable goodwill – as opposed to the exercise of fictional leverage.

Although Britain’s refusal to accept the EU’s proposal on mutually shared rights has worried many EU citizens, the reality is that, because British public opinion – and the mood among MPs – is so sharply in favour of their right to remain, no one buys that the government won’t do it. So it doesn’t buy any leverage – while an early guarantee in July of last year would have bought Britain credit.

But at least the government hasn’t behaved foolishly about money

Despite the pressure on wages caused by the fall in the value of the pound and the slowdown in growth, the United Kingdom is still a large and growing economy that is perfectly well-placed to buy the access it needs to the single market, provided that it doesn’t throw its toys out of the pram over paying for its pre-agreed liabilities, and continuing to pay for the parts of EU membership Britain wants to retain, such as cross-border policing activity and research.

So there’s that at least.

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.

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