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The Liberal Democrat manifesto is a blast from the past

The party has moved on from Nick Clegg, but not in the way you might expect. 

In 2015, I dubbed the Liberal Democrat manifesto their a “coalition-ready” document: it was stuffed with small incremental changes. A few might have pulled Ed Miliband to the right or David Cameron to the left, but all were all perfectly deliverable in coalition. There were no tuition-fee-style hostages to fortune – every promise in the 2015 manifesto could have been delivered in a coalition, regardless of who was in it.

The 2017 manifesto is very different. This is a Liberal Democrat manifesto from the year BC: Before Coalition. These are policies that, for the most part, could only be secured in the event of a Liberal Democrat majority in the House of Commons.

Take the big ticket item: a vote on the terms of the Brexit deal. That would be a tricky ask if Labour were, say, 30 seats short of a majority in parliament, as their leader is a Eurosceptic of long vintage, or a parliamentary party worried about going the same way as their Scottish colleagues did if they defy their voters over a referendum. The Liberal Democrats might, however, get their way on the legalisation of cannabis.

As for their commitment to increase income tax by a penny in the pound on the basic, higher and top rate of tax to fund the NHS: Labour have made a great deal of hay that average earners will pay no more tax under them, and would loathe to give it up.

But those achievements look a lot better than what they’d get past a Conservative government under Theresa May. Philip Hammond – or whoever May replaces him with after 8 June – is not going to sign off a penny increase in income tax to spend on the Liberal Democrats and there is no drug strong enough to convince May is to approve the decriminalisation and legal sale of cannabis.

At this election at least, the Liberal Democrats are firmly back in their “wouldn’t it be wonderful if we won?” fantasyland – lightyears away from the age of Nick Clegg. 

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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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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