'NICK CLEGG - ON BREXIT - AND MORE - 27 MARCH 2018'
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2015 Sir Nick Clegg has lost his job and nursed his son through blood
cancer. Now he is more upbeat, playing the drums and trying to stop
Sir Nick Clegg is remarkably optimistic for somebody who has just been through three years of hell. Having lost his job as deputy prime minister and watched the Liberal Democrats being crushed at the 2015 election, he saw his European ideals rejected by the voters in the Brexit referendum, then suffered the humiliation of being booted out of parliament last year.
more gruelling than any of these political defeats, he has also nursed
his son Antonio through lymphoma (blood cancer), administering a brutal
daily combination of pills and injections that he compares to napalming
the body. Antonio blotted everything else out, he says.
I stood again [at the snap election in June] with quite a heavy
heart, I was focused on him . . . If it had happened when I was still
in government, I think I would have had to stop. I dont think
you could go through it with that kind of job. He looked like a ghoul,
all his hair gone, puffy and green. Now his 16-year-old son is
back to normal, 6ft 4in and preparing for his GCSEs. We
are only having checks every six months and statistically it gets better
and better. All the clichés apart, it makes you focus on the
We meet him in Somerset House, where he now has an office doing think tanky stuff about drug reform and Europe. It is clear that he is still immersed in the politics of Brexit, travelling around EU capitals to meet heads of state and keeping in regular touch with other elder statesmen including Sir John Major, Tony Blair, and Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon. This week he travelled to Dublin with Lord Adonis and Lord Heseltine, and he speaks constantly to pro-European Labour and Conservative MPs. Brexit in the Clegg household, as you can imagine, was a very personal issue. My mum is an 82-year-old Dutch lady who spent her formative years in a Japanese war camp and then couldnt vote in the referendum having spent half a century here, been a teacher and had four children. My dad is half-Russian and of course Miriam is Spanish, so Brexit for us wasnt about customs unions but identity.
His children have both Spanish and UK passports. It is very Anglo-Saxon to think of the European Union as being about whether butter is cheaper or more expensive. It started as peace over war, democracy after fascism, in eastern Europe freedom after communism. We in Britain see it differently . . . particularly for the old its as though membership was constantly whispering to them that Britain wasnt as great anymore.
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have compounded the misery, he says. They are two very uninspiring, unimaginative leaders who are competing for alternative versions of the past. He wants socialism, she wants Thatcherism, neither want anything new. He knew Mrs May well when they sat around the cabinet table during the coalition years. Shes not a bad person but shes not someone who can see the wood for the trees. They have both been taken hostage. Momentum and the Tory right have invented these creatures and they kneecap anyone who threatens them. You are getting these frankly cartoonish characters on either side who are suddenly elevated and can start throwing fish in the Thames or become obsessed by minutiae like Jeremy Corbyns hat, all this awful, pompous hysteria about nothing. He is convinced it cant last. It is the triumph of mediocrity, of course it will give way. There will be some kind of realignment. I think it is inevitable . . . British liberalism should get off its knees.
With 12 months to go before the UK is due to leave the EU, Sir Nick is still not reconciled to Brexit. I want to stop it yes, absolutely. The transition period is just a euphemism for delay. I think it is the most undignified act of humiliation that I can remember in my lifetime. It means the UK is willingly now saying we will do all the hard bits of the negotiation after we have forfeited any means of leverage. One of President Macrons advisers said to me, Do they realise how weak they will be? No self-respecting French politician would put their country in that situation.
The way to stop Brexit is for MPs to vote down the final deal, he says. One of the reasons I have been going around European capitals is to privately give them a message they are not getting from the government that there is a chance 20 to 25 per cent and rising that MPs withhold their consent and at that time the most important ingredient the UK would need would be time. There should in his view be another referendum on the terms of departure. You cant countermand a vote by the British people without another vote by the British people, he says.
still minds that he was never forgiven for doing a U-turn on free tuition
fees. I got crucified for failing to deliver in one policy area,
they [Brexiteers] have literally abandoned every single one of their
promises lower prescription charges, smaller class sizes, complete
control over fisheries, complete control of our borders, £350
million for the NHS. At that point I think it is perfectly OK for MPs
to say, Hang on a minute, Im sorry but this is not what
you said would happen.
The re-election of President Putin makes it even more important for Europe to stick together, he says. I remember saying to Theresa May and David Cameron after the killing of the spy Alexander Litvinenko, I dont think were being nearly tough enough on Russia. I dont think were being tough enough now. Weve been far too complacent about the Russians and their creeping wish to destabilise and immobilise European politics.
Centrist Tories and Labour moderates would also be involved. You need a political entity in British politics which clearly can defeat these hysterical populisms on the right and left and capture the excitement, optimism and imagination of looking forward rather than constantly asking how you go back. He doesnt know who would lead it, but it probably wouldnt be him. If you have been spat out as I was from government in 2015, then lost a seat, I dont think you can say nothings changed I can dive back in. Equally at the age of 51 it would be implausible for me to say never but I certainly dont have any plans to at the moment.
He believes it can happen only when disaffected Labour MPs leave their party. They need to get their skates on and get out. They have this mawkish, quite sentimental attitude towards being a Labour man or woman. Im a Lib Dem but its not the be all and end all, I dont treat my Lib Dem membership card as a ticket to a sect. They need to make a proper break. It mustnt just become another way of continuing this internecine spat within the Labour party. What I keep saying to them is, your acid test should be, Will a new entity appeal to One Nation Conservatives? If it doesnt, it wont work. Its got to appeal across the political spectrum.
This is now a culture war, he insists, not just about Brexit. You are seeing a wider clash of future and past, faith in technology and suspicion of it, openness to immigration and suspicion of it. Thats why its generational. You dont win a culture war prettily, youve got to fight it. This is going to be turbulent. I think the young will win the day, they have to . . . All the kindling is lying around, it just needs a spark to light it.
INSERT - THE GLOBAL FUND WILL FIX IT.
William Peter Clegg
TVOTW - ICOPO
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