Nick Clegg attends a press statement in German Ministry of Economy on November 26, 2014 in Berlin. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the TV debates would hurt the Lib Dems

Without a distinctive message to offer, Nick Clegg's party could be left looking irrelevant. 

For the Lib Dems, the 2010 TV debates were a boon. Although they couldn't sustain the dizzy heights of "Cleggmania", the party won a million more votes than in 2005, despite the fading of the Iraq factor and the close contest between the Conservatives and Labour (making it theoretically easier for the big two to squeeze them). True, the Lib Dems won five fewer seats but they would likely have performed even worse in the absence of the debates. 

Should the face-offs be repeated, however (and David Cameron remains notably equivocal), the Lib Dems will now likely be among the losers, rather than the winners. The proposed 7-7-2 format is perhaps the worst outcome they could have hoped for. As Cameron somewhat cruelly noted during a recent session of PMQs, the Lib Dems, despite their role in government, are now being treated as a "minor party". Rather than taking his place alongside the PM and Ed Miliband in a repeat of 2010's three-way (as he hoped), Nick Clegg will now be one among many in the two proposed seven-ways (featuring the three main parties, Ukip, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru).

For the Lib Dem leader, this is a baleful fate. His party's election pitch has been defined by splitting the difference between Labour and the Tories, vowing to gift the former a "spine" (through greater fiscal conservatism) and the latter a "heart" (through greater social justice) in the event of another hung parliament. Had Clegg won a place in the proposed three-way, that moderating message may well have resonated with voters who don't trust Labour with their money, or trust the Tories with public services. 

But it is far harder to deliver on a stage crowded with seven participants. Next to Ukip, the Greens (currently eating into the party's base) and assorted nationalists, the Lib Dems will struggle to stand out. It is precisely this lack of distinction that has troubled figures on the party's left, such as Tim Farron, and on its right, such as Jeremy Browne, both of whom, in different ways, have called for a more radical affirmation of liberal values. As Browne told me when I interviewed him last year: "I don’t think you want to stand up and say, 'Vote for us, we’ll split the difference between the two parties. Vote for us, we’ll modify them.' I don’t think that is a compelling pitch ... If you go to church, you might be happy to hear a bit about the fundraising appeal to mend the roof but you go to church because you want to hear about God."

Sidelined in the seven-way, and locked out of the two-way, the danger for the Lib Dems is that the debates would leave them looking more irrelevant than ever. 

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.