Nick Clegg addresses delegates at the CBI conference on November 10, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Lib Dems suffer worst-ever by-election result for a major party

The party won just 0.9 per cent of the vote. But it remains confident that it can win where it is incumbent. 

It is the woes of the Conservatives and Labour that loom largest after last night. The Tories lost Rochester (albeit by a narrower margin than the final polls suggested), a seat they had repeatedly boasted they could win, and Ukip acquired its second MP. Far from losing momentum as the general election approaches, the Farageists are still gaining it. Further Conservative defections, if less likely than some suggest, cannot be ruled out. The schism on the right of British politics looks further than ever from being healed. 

But having long planned to exploit the Tories' tribulations, Labour finds itself embroiled in its own crisis. Emily Thornberry's resignation as shadow attorney general over her ill-judged tweet of a house bearing St George's flags means that disastrous headlines for Ed Miliband are competing this morning with those for David Cameron. 

It would be remiss, however, not to note the apocalyptically bad performance of the Liberal Democrats. They won just 0.9 per cent of the vote in Rochester, a record low for a major party in a by-election (the previous nadir being the 1.4 per cent they polled in Clacton), and lost their deposit for the 11th time in this parliament. A party that once specialised in winning by-elections has become adept at losing them. Activists are only grateful that they narrowly avoided defeat to an independent dominatrix candidate. 

But the party remains more stoical than its subterranean ratings would suggest. While their vote has collapsed to unimaginable lows in some seats, the Lib Dems remain confident that they can hold most of their 56 MPs at the general election. The most significant by-election result for the party in this parliament was that in Eastleigh, where, despite all the obstacles to doing so, they held the seat by nearly 2,000 votes. The victory reflected the Lib Dems' strong local reputation and their still-potent ground game. By maximising the benefits of incumbency, the party could yet retain most of its seats and, even as it falls behind Ukip in vote share, hope to re-enter government in another hung parliament

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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