Nick Clegg gives a speech on International Development at The Village Hall in Hoxton Square yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Will Clegg suffer death by a thousand cuts?

The Lib Dem leader has avoided a palace coup but party activists are circling. 

If Nick Clegg's position as Lib Dem leader is more secure than it was at the start of the week (largely thanks to the ineptitude of his enemies), it is also clear that he is not safe yet. While he has the support of a majority of his party's MPs (who have the power to trigger a leadership election through a vote of no confidence), he could still face a contest if at least 75 constituency associations and student groups demand one.

It is significant, then, that Clegg is coming under increased activist pressure. In a letter to today's Times, the well-organised Social Liberal Forum writes that "It’s right that the party re-examines its strategy, how we deliver it, and what we will be offering the electorate at the general election in 2015 — and it is right that this debate should include who leads the party. The membership will hold the key to this re-examination, and we acknowledge that views differ on how to approach these issues within the party — as they do within the Social Liberal Forum (SLF)."

But while it's unsurprising to see the left-leaning SLF challenge Clegg's leadership (its co-chair Naomi Smith is an aide to Lord Oakeshott), it's the intervention of Liberal Democrat Voice editor Stephen Tall that will most trouble the party's high command. The usually loyal Tall, who has edited the activist website since 2007, argues persuasively that Clegg should resign on the grounds that the party "needs a leader who can negotiate the best deal possible to advance the Lib Dem manifesto". 

He writes: "I don’t think Nick will be able to secure a Coalition deal with the Conservatives that Lib Dem members will be prepared to sign up to: there is too much suspicion lingering from the current deal. Nor do I think Nick will be able to do a deal with Labour that he will be able credibly to communicate to the voters as anything other than a complete about-turn on the previous five years of cohabitation with the Tories.

"In short, Nick is one of the impediments (not the only one, but a not insignificant one) to the Lib Dems being free to negotiate a second Coalition if that’s the hand we’re dealt."

He adds that Clegg could remain as Deputy Prime Minister until May 2015, allowing the new party leader to "present the party’s manifesto unencumbered by the compromises of coalition." 

It's the kind of pragmatic argument that could quickly gain ground among party members (39 per cent of whom currently want Clegg to resign). While the Lib Dem leader has avoided a palace coup, the danger is that he now suffers death by a thousand cuts at the hands of his activists. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.