Nick Clegg on what Brexit means for Yorkshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 September 2016

Former Liberal Democrat leader,Nick Clegg,delivers an election speech

Former Liberal Democrat leader,Nick Clegg,delivers an election speech

© Tommy London / Alamy Stock Photo

Nick Clegg, Sheffield Hallam MP and new EU spokesman for the Lib Dems, argues for an early general election in an exclusive interview with Yorkshire Life.

Nick Clegg giving a television interview in Downing street,London Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock PhotoNick Clegg giving a television interview in Downing street,London Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Donald Trump blames the Mexicans, Boris Johnson blames Brussels. These angry populists make false claims about difficult dilemmas but sometimes there are no simple solutions and we need parties of moderation to say we have to treat each other like grown-ups.

‘The fact of the matter is that we can’t have our cake and eat it - we can’t have close ties with Europe without abiding by the rules. It is frustrating that sometimes it’s hard to get a hearing for an explanation that sometimes people don’t want to hear.’

Nick Clegg is well used to the ups and downs of party politics but his irritation at recent events is obvious. He is clearly invigorated by his new role as the party’s EU spokesman though, after the disappointment of the European referendum not going the way he wanted,.

‘I think in the summer and autumn we’re seeing a phoney peace after the war of the referendum, but there are tough questions to be asked,’ he said. ‘In my new role I hope to get back in the saddle a bit more and ask the questions that are not being asked. The first question the government have to face is what model they will pursue.

‘Are we going to adopt a similar policy on dealing with Europe to Norway or Canada or Switzerland? A prime minister needs to see the bigger picture. What the country needs to have from Theresa May is a vision of the overall game-plan.

‘I have worked with Theresa May. She is a very diligent politician with a great eye for detail but she needs to set her sights on the horizon. There is only so long we can drift.’

Our interview took place a month after the result of the European Union referendum was announced, in his constituency office on a quiet street in a leafy suburb of Sheffield. The office is modest and sparse, one wall is taken up with a small kitchen comprising a kettle, tea bags and instant coffee. A bottle of champagne stands untouched near an open packet of biscuits.

Clegg is a relaxed and youthful-looking 49, wearing a pale blue, open-necked shirt and dark blue suit. A newspaper is neatly squared in the corner of an otherwise clear desk.

He speaks calmly and in measured tones but is steely in his resolve when he discusses the post-Brexit political world. ‘We have a new government we have not elected, a new prime minister who has not been elected who has a new set of policies. We should have a general election as soon as possible.

‘To say we can’t because of the fixed term parliament bill is wrong – there are conditions for having an early general election in extreme circumstances, and if these aren’t extreme circumstances I don’t know what are. I think Theresa May will come to rue the day she doesn’t seek her own mandate.’

Clegg’s career to date gives him an almost unrivalled set of credentials, making him ideally suited to reflect on the current climate. He was a member of the European Parliament from 1999-2004 and was elected as MP for Sheffield Hallam in 2005. The then leader Charles Kennedy appointed him the party’s European spokesman and, under Sir Menzies Campbell’s leadership, he was made home affairs spokesman. He replaced Campbell as leader of the party in 2007 and, after the 2010 general election, was named deputy prime minister in the coalition government.

He stood down as leader of the Liberal Democrats after the party lost 49 of its 57 MPs at the 2015 general election following a series of poor local and European election results.

Now, clearly relishing his return to front-line politics as the Lib Dem European spokesman, he said: ‘The Brexit vote will mean a prolonged period of uncertainty for Yorkshire, and the country as a whole. Even in the most optimistic scenario it will take a considerable amount of time to unpick 43 years of legal and economic integration in Europe. The uncertainty will continue for a very long time. The EU red tape will now all have to be replaced with British red tape.

‘People like me always said it would have this effect but I’m a pragmatic politician and I don’t want to say ‘I told you so’. I wish the result had gone the other way but now we have to find the second best option.’

So where does he think the Remain campaign went wrong?

‘I think the way David Cameron and George Osborne conducted the campaign with statistics couldn’t compete with the grotesquely misleading soundbites of the leave campaigners which had a real emotional punch. We now have to deal with the cards we have dealt ourselves. ‘The result disappointed me and upset me, but it didn’t surprise me that people were frustrated and angry.

‘I understand that people have seen their pay decline over the years, that it’s hard to find an affordable home or decent social care, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that people don’t like the status quo. The tragedy is that what people were angry about isn’t going to be made better by leaving the EU.

‘I understand their feelings but the irony is that quitting the EU is not going to make it better. The solution to a lot of the anger lies in our hands in Westminster, not with the EU in Brussels.’

And after the upheaval and turmoil of recent months, Nick Clegg sees a positive future for his party. ‘Labour are an increasingly useless opposition and I can guarantee that divisions will re-emerge in the Conservative party, but we are winning a lot of local elections and council seats. We are already recovering and we do have a very big role as a party united.

‘We have got to keep making the case for our politics. The extremes of left and right are doing very well. I think millions of people are quietly looking for politics of moderation and only the Liberal Democrats at the moment can offer that. We are the only UK-wide party with a moderate grown-up attitude.’

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