Nick Clegg speaks with Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband before Angela Merkel addresses both Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lib Dem decision not to guarantee EU referendum offers relief for Labour

Miliband's party will not be left as the only one that "doesn't trust the people".

After recent murmurings that the Lib Dems could come out in favour of a guaranteed in/out EU referendum, there is relief among Labour that Nick Clegg has resolved not to do so. At a meeting of the parliamentary party last night, Lib Dem MPs agreed that the party would stick to its current stance of only holding a vote in the event of a further transfer of powers to Brussels. Tim Farron on the left and Jeremy Browne on the right were among those arguing for a referendum, but Clegg prevailed.

Had the Deputy PM changed his stance, it would have been harder for Ed Miliband to defend his refusal to promise a referendum, with Labour cast as the only party that "doesn't trust the people". Now, with both parties committed to only holding a vote if more sovereignty is passed to the EU, they will be able to team up to present Cameron's arbitrary timetable as a threat to business and to the national interest.

But while the Lib Dems have moved away from a referendum, Unite has moved towards one. The trade union's executive has warned that Labour's failure to support one is "likely to be an electoral millstone", arrguing that "the issue can never be resolved except on the basis of a clear democratic mandate". A motion on the issue will be voted on at the Unite conference in Liverpool today. But while the union's move will embolden those in Labour who have long argued for a referendum, such as Tom Watson and Keith Vaz, there is no prospect of Miliband changing his stance. As I have outlined before, the Labour leader believes that a guaranteed vote is wrong in both principle and practice, and is not prepared to risk the opening years of his government being dominated by an issue that could result in a premiership-ending defeat.

One remaining nuance that separates the Lib Dems' stance from that of Labour is that Clegg believes the conditions for a referendum are likely to be met in the next parliament. Miliband, however, does not. Expect this subtle but important difference to receive more attention as the future of Britain's EU membership comes under ever-greater scrutiny.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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