Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat party leader, at a public event where he is wearing safety goggles. Photo: Getty Images
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Lib Dem torment is not all good news for Labour

Ed Miliband benefits when leftwing voters desert Nick Clegg but he suffers when moderate positions on Europe and immigration are shunted to the margins.

Not long ago, a shadow cabinet minister told me this joke that was doing the rounds in the parliamentary Labour party:

Q: A Lib Dem and a Tory are standing on the edge of a cliff. Who do you push first?

A: The Tory. Business before pleasure.

The sufferings of Nick Clegg have been a source of consolation to the opposition since the formation of the coalition. At an emotional level, it is morale-boosting to see a party that for many years challenged Labour from the pious left mangled in soul-shredding alliance with the Conservatives. At a practical level, the defection to Ed Miliband’s camp of voters that preferred the old, protest-oriented Lib Dems explains most of Labour’s lead in opinion polls, when it still has one.

It was predictable that this year’s local and European elections would bring another round of butchery to the Cleggites but that didn’t diminish the gratification such a spectacle afforded to their enemies. The Lib Dems were nearly evicted from the European parliament altogether and their councillors came similarly close to banishment from inner London boroughs. Labour gained at their expense. Opposition strategists, defending the decision to target Clegg in the campaign, now claim a degree of vindication. It was, says one Miliband advisor, important “having put the Lib Dems back in their box, to keep them there.” Once it is clear that the junior coalition partner is kaput, the path is clearer to take on the bigger Tory beast in a general election battle. Pleasure before business.

And it makes sense in terms of electoral arithmetic for Labour to grind the Lib Dems down. But politics is about more than boundaries and maths. Most voters certainly don’t see it that way. Zoom out and what you observe in the crushing of Clegg’s forces is the crippling of arguments that, broadly speaking, Labour would like to see strengthened. The Lib Dems were unabashedly the party of “in” on the question of European Union membership. They have taken a liberal line on immigration, relative to Cameron’s stance. They have also pushed back (a bit) against ever deeper cuts to the welfare budget.

At this point, the Labour tribalists snort with derision. Clegg has done nothing to soften the blow of austerity, goes the opposition mantra. He is an accomplice to Cameron’s callousness, not a brake on Tory excess. The Lib Dems would like to position themselves as the moderating element in the coalition but – says Labour – no-one buys it and it certainly isn’t in Miliband’s interests to bolster Clegg’s bogus progressive credentials.

Even if it could be proved that the Lib Dems have managed to restrain the Tories in some areas (and the Conservative back benchers certainly think they have) there is the additional problem of Clegg’s personal credibility. He may be spoiling arguments merely by touching them. This is certainly the view that Labour’s more ardent pro-Europeans took when watching the deputy Prime Minister beaten by Farage in televised debates on EU membership. It is also a view that is rapidly spreading through Lib Dem ranks – the image of their leader as the Jonah of liberal politics whose best contribution to the cause might be hurling himself overboard.

But the supposed toxicity of one liberal candidate cannot account for the defeat of pro-Europeanism nor for the surge in hostility to immigration represented by Ukip’s performance last Thursday. Those trends have been building over a long period and have a complex genesis. (I looked at some of it at more length in this essay earlier in the year.) It will take just as long to rebuild the case for the politics of openness and tolerance. The process will take even longer if the Lib Dems are annihilated. Labour may not like it, but Clegg’s party is on the same side in an emerging culture war against illiberalism and xenophobia.

For most of this parliament, Miliband’s interests appear to have been served by the dereliction of what used to be called the third party and is now slipping further down the league. That is certainly true if politics is described purely in terms of who poaches votes from whom in which seats in order to scrape over the finish line. Obviously it is good for Labour to be locking down anti-Clegg defectors in marginal constituencies. It is not so helpful if the price of that arithmetical advantage is a cultural drift in British politics towards bitter nationalism, characterised by the view that toughness is the only legitimate policy on immigration and exit the only popular stance towards Europe.

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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.