Nick Clegg: will Brexit help him go from political Judas to comeback kid?

The former deputy prime minister is playing a central role in the campaign to force a vote on the government's Brexit plans.

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After spending half a decade as a political pariah, Nick Clegg seems to be on his way to a comeback of sorts. The former Liberal Democrat leader has teamed up with his old political rival, Ed Miliband, and a small but significant group of Tory Remainers, to lead the call for there to be full parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s Brexit plan. Earlier this week, he found himself resoundingly cheered from the Labour benches as he demanded to know how the government could claim the right to know what Brexit means.

During today’s parliamentary debate on Brexit he went further, effectively accusing the Prime Minister of hypocrisy over her reluctance to allow parliamentary scrutiny, in an impressive speech which won plaudits from the twitterati.

As the former Deputy Prime Minister, Clegg understands the inner-workings of both the Tory party and Whitehall better than most politicians. He also has a firm grip on the intricacies of Brussels bureaucracy. Before becoming an MEP in 1999, he worked as European Commission trade negotiator.

Now the Brexit spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, he has been pushing the government to allow MPs a vote before Article 50 is triggered. The government has conceded a debate, but not a formal vote. Clegg says Theresa May and Brexit Secretary David Davis’ position is “based on multiple fallacies”.

Freed from the shackles of government, Clegg’s frustration with his former coalition partners is clear. He criticises May’s leadership style, accusing the Prime Minister of preferring to operate behind closed doors.

“She is treating parliament much the same as she treated the Home Office . . . it has a particular culture in the government system, it relies on secrecy and does not welcome scrutiny. A strong home secretary, as she was, therefore tends to adopt quite a ‘command and control’ way of running things, but that is not the right approach for something as important and complex as Brexit,” he said.

Clegg attacks the notion that the government thinks it has a mandate to impose whatever version of Brexit it chooses on the British public, including the 48 per cent who voted to stay in the EU. “The government thinks the terms of our exit are nothing more than a technical negotiating matter, when in reality they are of a profound constitutional significance,” he says. “Decisions such as whether you stay in the single market are not negotiating chips to be kept close to the government’s chest.”

But is this all sour grapes? Are Clegg and his europhile friends merely struggling to accept the referendum result and denying the democratic will of the British people? “That’s absurd,” snorts Clegg. His aim, and that of his cohorts, is not to “in any shape or form” seek to rerun the referendum, but rather to enforce accountability over a hugely important constitutional decision. He lays the blame for what he calls “this sputtering nonsense” firmly at the door of “people such as Iain Duncan Smith and the more frothy Tory press like the Daily Mail”.

These hardcore Brexiteers are lashing out, in his view, because the false promises made during the Leave campaign are coming back to haunt them. Nobody talks anymore about funding the NHS out of our contribution to the EU budget (the much-discussed £350m figure) or the perceived threat of Turkey’s potential EU membership.

“There was a dark cynicism in their [the Leave campaigners’] pitch to the British people – they persuaded people to take a leap of faith out of the EU and withheld their views about what this would mean in practice.”

He mocks the notion that the Brexit negotiations need to be kept under wraps in order not to prejudice any potential deal with the EU. “The Brexiteers sound like the agents of a Premier League footballer that they are trying to flog to another club. It’s not like that . . .  It’s hugely important that the early signals from Theresa May assert her view of what she thinks is in the national interest, but they also need to be politically intelligent in terms of how they are perceived across the continent.”

Clegg, who is a multi-linguist, confesses to a “geeky interest” in perusing the European press. His verdict is that the continent is currently looking at post-Brexit Britain with a mix of shock and bewilderment. “In France, Germany and Spain, the newspapers are not currently writing about David Davis’ clever negotiating tactics, they are saying ‘why on earth is there this outburst of apparent xenophobia in Britain’s public and political debate?’

“I wonder if David Davis has been spending too much time with Liam Fox, who, notably among the Three Brexiteers, does seem to operate on his own planet where Britain rules the seas, and we can rattle our sabre and all those pesky foreigners will fall in line,” he says. “It is astonishing to see British Tories who are prepared to ignore economics in favour of their own political fixations, who do not seem to understand that for other European leaders the same rules apply.”

Clegg has previously voiced the hope that a botched attempt at hard Brexit might trigger a desire for an alternative to Tory rule among the British people. For him personally, Brexit is the perfect issue upon which to position himself as a voice of reason. He has the experience, the gravitas and the passion to help win back some of the political credibility he lost during the dark days of the coalition and the tuition fees debacle. Whether he can ever fully lose the traitor tag remains to be seen, but his intervention on Brexit will be welcome among the 16.1 million people who didn’t vote for any kind of Brexit, let alone a hard one.

 

Serena Kutchinsky is the digital editor of the New Statesman.