Nick Clegg: "The Government is jumpy and insecure about Brexit"

Posted On: 
14th December 2017

Nick Clegg knows better than most how dramatically the pendulum can swing in British politics. As the battle lines are drawn over Brexit, the former Deputy Prime Minister talks to Labour’s Stephen Kinnock about the ‘evolving’ public debate and why next year’s ‘meaningful vote’ is shaping up to be the biggest decision in Parliament’s post-war history

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg interviewed by Labour MP Stephen Kinnock
Credit: 
Paul Heartfield

The problem with writing anything about Brexit is that in the few days between first draft and pressing send the entire picture can change, multiple times.

For example, when I sat down with Nick Clegg in Westminster on Monday 4 December, Theresa May was sitting down for her fateful lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker. All morning Number 10 had been briefing that a glorious new chapter in the negotiations was about to open: the Prime Minister had miraculously managed to conjure up a form of words on the Northern Irish border that was somehow going to satisfy the EU, the Irish government, the DUP and the Brextremists in her own party.

An hour later, and it had all gone horribly wrong. Theresa May had triumphantly pulled the rabbit from her hat, only to have it ruthlessly shot by Arlene Foster. With friends like those, who needs enemies?

“Well, if Arlene Foster can change her mind, why can’t the British people?” was Nick’s response, as the news was filtering through. And I had to admit he had a point...

Fast-forward to Friday morning and victory was once again being declared, with the European Commission confirming that sufficient progress had been made on phase 1, thus enabling movement to trade talks. But a cursory glance at the document tells us that it’s not really a victory at all, it’s a series of contortions and capitulations.

The government has gone from insisting on full exit from the Single Market and the Customs Union to ‘full regulatory alignment’, from ‘go whistle’ on the budget to payment in full, and from ‘take back control’ to ECJ jurisdiction on citizens’ rights until 2029 and a transition phase that we all know will be a carbon copy of the status quo.

Nick Clegg and I go back a long way. We were both at the College of Europe in Bruges back in the early ‘90s, and we later became firm friends in Brussels, where I was working for the British Council and he was European Commission official and then an MEP.

When it comes to politics we differ on many things but we are united in our passionately held view that Britain is at its best when it is fully engaged with the world. We have seen what our country can achieve when it is well and truly at the table, working tenaciously and constructively through international organisations such as the EU, the UN, Nato, the G7 and the G20, building influence and leverage for our values and interests.

So, it is as committed internationalists that we despair at the sight of the British Prime Minister and her Cabinet being repeatedly discredited on the international stage, in the glare of the world’s media; that we are appalled by the sight of the government’s so-called red lines going up in smoke at their first contact with reality; and that we are saddened to witness British diplomacy, once held up as the Rolls Royce of its kind, reduced to going cap in hand to Brussels – not as a partner, but as a supplicant.

Nick and I both campaigned tirelessly for Remain, and we’ll both believe until our dying day that the referendum was the greatest act of political and economic self-harm in living memory.

But when it comes to the question of what to do about it, our paths diverge. In his recently published book, How to stop Brexit (and make Britain great again), Nick argues that Brexit has to be stopped before we pass the legal point of no return, 29 March 2019, and when we sat down to talk about it he set out his case in his customary fluent and forceful manner.

“Look, it’s David Davis who famously said that ‘if a democracy cannot change its mind, then it ceases to be a democracy’. And the fact of the matter is that on an almost daily basis all those lies that were told by the likes of Boris Johnson during the campaign are being exposed, and the reality of what Brexit will do to our country is emerging,” he says.

“Surely, as it becomes clear that things are not going to turn out as we were told, then we should be given the opportunity to re-consider, and to change course?”

But the problems with his argument are threefold, and I tell him so.

First, if the result had been 52/48 for Remain, we would have expected the Leavers to accept it. I know that Nigel Farage promised during the campaign that a narrow win for Remain would lead him and his merry band to re-double their efforts next time, but surely the day that we start taking moral or political guidance from Nigel is the day that we should just pack up and go home?

Second, we won’t have the full picture before we leave. The Article 50 Withdrawal Agreement will comprise the three divorce items (money, Ireland and citizens), along with a detailed description of the transition period and a vague outline of the future relationship. And it’s that last piece of the Brexit puzzle that’s the most important one, as it’s the piece that will define UK-EU relations for decades to come. Surely the last thing our country needs is another argument that’s largely based on guesswork about the future?

Third, reopening the verdict of the referendum would rapidly lose touch with the substantive issues, and instead would descend into a shouting match about why the Westminster elite has refused to accept the democratically expressed will of the people. Do we really think that’s the way to re-unite our deeply divided nation?

Nick disagrees, vehemently.  “Part of the elixir of democracy is the ability to adapt and evolve your opinion as the facts adapt and evolve,” he says. “This weird sort of ‘Daily Mail Old Testament’ view that a decision taken one Thursday summer afternoon should forever determine our future, without any freedom to react to new facts. I just find that ludicrous.

“So, can I imagine a time where everyone will think the same? No, of course not. Our European identify is never going to be a subject of complete consensus.

“But can I imagine a time where the considered opinion about our future would lead to an outcome quite different to where we are headed at the moment? Well, to that I think the answer is yes.”

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There is one point on which Nick and I do agree. The PM has promised that Parliament will be given a ‘meaningful vote’ on the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. That vote will take place next October, and it will certainly be the most important decision that MPs have taken since Iraq, and arguably in our post-War history.

And if the Withdrawal Agreement looks like it will damage the jobs and livelihoods of the people that we were elected to represent then it will be clear that we cannot support it.

The October vote will therefore be a re-set moment for British democracy, when MPs of all stripes will be required to put party politics aside, to examine their consciences, and to truly act in the national interest. Nick is unequivocal on this point.

“I don’t talk about a referendum on the final deal as much as others do because I think that there is a clear chronology to this. The first thing which has to happen is that MPs like you have to say to May and Davis that this simply doesn’t measure up to what your constituents expect.

“The meaningful vote in Parliament next October is therefore far more important than speculating about the exact circumstances where you do or do not have a referendum further down the line.”

Speaking after this week’s vote on Dominic Grieve’s amendment, Nick says he is struck by the “splenetic reaction” of the Brexiters. “It was a wholly uncontroversial amendment – of course MPs should be given a meaningful vote – yet the government, the Daily Mail et al went berserk. It shows how jumpy and insecure they’ve become about their own cause.”

But there is a deep-seated problem around the meaningful vote, which may well be intractable. The Brexit Select Committee, of which I am a member, recently met with Michel Barnier in Brussels and he made it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement on which MPs will vote will contain plenty of detail about the three divorce issues (money, citizens, Irish / Northern Irish border) and will also include an in-depth description of the terms of the transition period.

But the outline of the future, post-transition relationship will be just that: a basic outline. Throughout our meeting Barnier repeatedly referred to the future relationship section of the Withdrawal Agreement as a ‘broad scoping of general principles’, and this view was of course reiterated, in terms, in the EU27’s negotiating guidelines for the 14 December European Council summit.

Nick agrees: “The key thing now is for MPs to assert that a meaningful vote must include meaningful detail on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, because the government wants to ram Brexit through Parliament before it has even concluded the talks on our future trading relationship. That would be a very undemocratic sleight of hand.

“If you have no meaningful description of the future relationship it is a bit like packing a removal van and having no idea about where you are moving to.

“And I think it would be an absolute aberration of Parliamentary accountability to sign off on a deal that is missing the most important element of all, because that will be the last chance that Parliament has to sign anything off.”

Our conversation then turns to whether there is a form of Brexit that MPs could support, when it comes to the October vote. Since the referendum I’ve been arguing that the UK should seek to join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA). EFTA mirrors the Customs Union and the EEA is closely aligned with the Single Market, thus offering the highest possible level of market access. However, EEA membership also allows for a degree of flexibility on managing free movement of labour, and EFTA membership does not preclude EFTA member countries from striking free trade deals with third countries.

Interestingly, Nick appears to agree with me that MPs could potentially support an EFTA/EEA-based Brexit:

“Let me be clear, Theresa May could have said, on that morning when she became Prime Minister, that Brexit means Brexit, I will deliver the instruction of the British people, but I am very mindful that I preside over a deeply divided country, socially, economically, between generations and so on, and because of that I will compromise, I will lead us out of the institutions of the EU, but I am not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater because I don’t think that represents the ambivalent centre of where people are.

“She could have said that she’d disappoint Remoaners like me and people who don’t want to leave at all, but she could also have said she would disappoint those who want to leave at any cost, like Liam Fox.

“I think if she had said that, most reasonable people would have thought it to be a fair representation of the very evenly balanced opinion in the UK.”

But he is deeply sceptical about the chances of a Prime Minister who’s been kidnapped by the Brextremists in her party and the media being able to negotiate such a deal: “The Brexit elite, who have in effect pulled off something akin to a right-wing coup in British politics, I don’t think they will ever accept the Norway model. So I don’t think it is what you will be presented with in a year’s time. But if you were to be, I agree, that would make it at least more debatable about what MPs should do.”

We turn finally to the future of Europe. I was struck by President Macron’s recent speech at the Sorbonne, where he set out his vision for a multi-tier Europe, based on a core of eurozone countries, a second set of EU member-states that are currently outside the euro, but committed to joining it, and an outer ring that have no intention of ever joining the euro, are fully engaged in the Single Market and Customs Union, but have opt-outs from a number of other policy areas.

The fact is that this outer tier has always existed and it has always been where the UK has sat. But what is refreshing to hear is that a French President is ready and willing to frame this more flexible, concentric circles-based approach as a positive.

If Macron’s vision for a more flexible architecture had been in place a few years ago then we would have once and for all been able to explode the myth that the UK was being dragged inexorably into some sort of federal European super-state, thus shooting the Ukip fox.

Nick agrees. “I have been very clear about what I aspire towards, I aspire towards us remaining a member of the EU, but not on exactly the same terms as prior to the referendum, the main change being a notable shift in the application of the rules around freedom of movement.

“Personally, I think that in the long run, the right place – and this reflects our ambivalence as a country – is to remain within the EU so that we remain as rule makers, but not as part of the core leadership, because we will not be part of the single currency.

“I think that those who are in the single currency will have to create their own dynamic of federal integration, and I think that will be reflected in policy more widely, so over time our membership would have felt more like a second tier one anyway, and that would have happened even if we hadn’t voted to Leave.

“But that feels like a pretty fair reflection of what we believe in this country: that we want to be part of the family of EU nations but we don’t want to be at the core of it.”

I left with mixed feelings. Nick and I differ on where to go from here, but I do agree wholeheartedly with his hard-headed, rational analysis of how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place.

The problem, though, is that blind, unquestioning belief seems to be defeating evidence-based reason in so many areas of our politics these days that the chances of common sense, pragmatism and realism winning the day appear to be slim. Although, as Nick Clegg knows better than anyone, in politics the pendulum has a tendency to swing in all sorts of unexpected and dramatic ways...

‘Game on’, I think, which puts a spring in my step as I walk out into the chilly Westminster air.