It could be you: Nick Clegg appeared to give away his favourite to take over the leadership. Photo: Getty
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Did Nick Clegg reveal his preferred successor in his speech?

Praise for Danny Alexander, but small digs at Tim Farron and Vince Cable.

Though this year saw a surprisingly chipper annual gathering for the Lib Dems, it wouldn’t have been Lib Dem party conference without some hearty leadership speculation. With Nick Clegg admitting he “won't go on forever”, and rumours of the potential rivals jostling for position, an overriding theme of this conference was who will end up being his successor.

Within the party and among Westminster commentators, it’s widely thought that if the Lib Dems lose more than half of their seats in the general election, as predicted in the polls, Clegg will have to stand down. Equally, if Labour were to attempt a pact with his party in the event of a hung parliament, it’s thought they will want a different Lib Dem leader to work with.

Some elements of Clegg’s keynote speech to party conference this afternoon suggested some thoughts about his successor were also playing on his mind. He praised a couple of the supposed leadership hopefuls: Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Energy Secretary Ed Davey. However, he only tossed off-the-cuff playful digs at the two favourites: party president Tim Farron and Business Secretary Vince Cable.

Of Alexander, he said:

Danny set it all out on Sunday: Eliminating the deficit in the first three years of the next parliament, and then bringing debt down steadily and sustainably. Running a budget that is balanced overall and - this is crucial - doing it in a way that allows us to invest in Britain's creaking infrastructure too . . .

In 2012 - I'll never forget this - Danny and I said: let's go further and faster to cut people's income tax. It's possible now, so why wait? George Osborne turned to me and said: I don't want to deliver a Liberal Democrat Budget.

Of Davey, he said:

Both parties in this Government promised we would stick to our green commitments, but it has taken constant pressure from the Liberal Democrats - not least Ed Davey - to hold the Tories to their word. And I can tell you now that a sustainable environment will remain at the heart of our vision for Britain's future - it's not green crap to us.

He also praised another potential hopeful, the health minister Norman Lamb, saying he deserved “a medal” for the “tireless work” he’s done on mental healthcare in government.

However, when it came to Farron – the cheery frontrunner for the party’s next leader – he simply told a joke about his uncanny impression of the Ukip leader when helping Clegg rehearse for the television debates earlier this year. He said the party president had been “so convincingly brilliant at copying Nigel Farage” it was "terrifying". He also noted that Farron was “even wearing a purple tie”.

Then there was a little dig at Cable. Urging his party not to hold back on their attacks on the Conservatives, Clegg referred to the Business Secretary’s reputation for disliking the Tories and therefore being an awkward coalition minister: “Vince, you’ve got to start telling us what you really think about the Tories”.

Although such jokes and asides never feature in the text of party conference speeches pre-briefed to the press, it is still significant that there weren’t references in either the original text or the delivered version to the work Cable has done in government, or Farron has done for the party. All this points to Alexander – a more likely candidate than Davey, who is not as popular or influential in the party – being Clegg’s preferred successor.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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