David Cameron and Nick Clegg address a press conference at 10 Downing Street on July 10, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How the Lib Dems' attacks on the Tories help Labour

The two-against-one dynamic harms the Tories while exposing Clegg's party to the charge of hypocrisy. 

In the early months of the coalition, Labour figures frequently lamented the two-against-one dynamic that allowed the Tories and the Lib Dems to pin the blame for the financial crisis on them. The argument that it was overspending by the last government that "got us into this mess" gained credibility by being made by both parties. 

In recent days, it has felt as if this dynamic has been reversed. Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have sounded like opposition politicians as they have accused the Tories of planning to "inflict unnecessary pain" on the country (Alexander) and of "kidding" voters over the feasibility of their deficit reduction plan (Clegg). After the Autumn Statement, and just five months away from the election, the Lib Dems are seeking to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives in two respects: their willingness to impose tax rises on the wealthy to eliminate the remainder of the deficit, rather than cuts alone, and their preparedness to borrow for investment. Both of these stances are shared by Labour, which has also pledged to introduce a mansion tax on properties above £2m and has left room for deficit-funded capital spending. 

Although there are differences with Ed Miliband's party too - the Lib Dems would follow the Tories in eliminating the structural current deficit by 2017-18, rather than by "the end of the next parliament" - Clegg is focusing on distinguishing his party from the Conservatives. There is a specific psephological reason for this. Of the Lib Dems' 56 seats, the Conservatives are in second place in 37. To hold on to these constituencies, the party needs to focus on winning tactical votes from left-leaning Labour and Green supporters (as it has done in the past). By talking up the dangers of a future Tory government, it hopes to persuade progressive voters that the safest option is to vote Lib Dem.

There are two important ways in which this helps Labour. The first is that the party's positions gain greater credibility by being supported by the Lib Dems. It is harder for the Tories to dismiss Labour's economic stances as nonsense when they are endorsed by the people they have been in government with for more than four years. When the Conservatives refuse to introduce any further tax rises on the wealthy and reject calls to borrow to invest in housing, they look like the odd ones out. Moderate Tory MPs have long complained that the Lib Dems have "retoxified" their brand by taking credit for the "nice" things the government has done and blaming them for the "nasty" things. 

The second is that the Lib Dems' attacks on their coalition partners expose them to the charge of hypocrisy and inconsistency (one swiftly made by George Osborne yesterday). When Clegg's party complains about the "unncessary pain" planned by the Conservatives, Labour will remind voters that they supported the bedroom tax, the tripling of tuition fees and the top-down reorganisation of the NHS. If the Tories are as nasty as the Lib Dems suggest, why vote for the people who have sat in cabinet with them since 2010?

It is this argument that troubles Lib Dems such as Jeremy Browne, who argue that Clegg has made a dangerous error by distancing the Lib Dems from the government (for instance through his absence at last week's Autumn Statement). Rather than attacking the Tories, they argue that the party should devote more time to claiming credit for the coalition's achievements. Browne told the Huffington Post that the "biggest danger for the Lib Dems is having one foot in government, and one foot out" and warned against moving from "being a party of protest to a party of protest-in-government." It is notable that, far from recovering in the polls, the Lib Dems have lost further support since embarking on "aggressive differentiation" from the Tories. Based on the results so far, Labour should hope that it long continues. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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