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Nick Clegg on the period of phoney peace

Poor umbrella etiquette, New Year's Eve party expectations, moths and being outbid on eBay - all examples of things which are more popular than Nick Clegg. Photo: Lynne Cameron/PA Wire - Credit: PA

There was the initial shock and furore of the referendum result itself, followed by the inevitable panic in the markets.

But after that initial shock a sense of denial has set in – a misplaced hope that perhaps it’s all somehow going to proceed without a hitch after all.

You can see it in the way Brexit-supporting newspapers leap on to any flicker of good news as evidence that the Brexit future is bright.

My personal favourite so far was the story in the Daily Telegraph celebrating the boost to the economy from more Brits planning “staycations” in the UK this summer, while failing to point out that one big reason for this trend is that the sharp fall in the pound has made foreign holidays prohibitively expensive for many families.

Theresa May has aided this mood by saying very little, other than repeating endlessly and somewhat meaninglessly that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

And there is an understandable longing from just about everyone to take a breather from the relentless political dramas of recent weeks and have a holiday.

But the peace won’t last. Pro-Europeans, internationalists and those who believe that Britain’s economy, our security and our place in the world are threatened by Brexit, should steel themselves for a very busy, and potentially hugely significant, autumn.

So what should we do?

First of all, we should not try to fight yesterday’s battles. Theresa May’s Government has a mandate from the British people to pull Britain out of the European Union. Pro-Europeans like us – a reasonable assumption to make of New European readers, I hope – must accept the verdict of the people.

But while the referendum gave the Government a mandate to withdraw from the EU it did not give a mandate on how to do it, or what our new relationship with our neighbours should be, not least because the Brexiteers did not deign to set out a plan during the campaign itself. Therefore we have a duty to hold the Government to account for the way in which it conducts the negotiations.

We are in the position we are in because David Cameron bowed to the hardline Brexiteers on his backbenches in the first place. But the terms of Brexit must not be held to ransom by the John Redwoods of this world and their demands for a ‘hard Brexit’, whatever that may mean. The test must be what is good for Britain, not what is good for Conservative Party management. Country, not party, must come first.

Theresa May has already said that she wants the ‘closest possible’ economic relationship with Europe and she must have the courage of her convictions. That can only mean significant, if not full, access to the Single Market, presumably along the lines of the sort of deal that Norway has. But even that will come at a high cost. In return for its access, Norway accepts free movement and pays into the EU budget. Even if Theresa May were, hypothetically, able to do a deal involving curbs on free movement, we would still have to abide by the rules of the Single Market without having any ability to shape them. The Single Market is about far more than just tariff-free trade – despite what David Davis and Liam Fox may say. In fact, in many ways that’s the least important aspect of how it works. The Single Market is about harmonised standards and rules – from environmental norms to qualification standards to technical specifications of products – which are far more important to 21st century trade than tariffs. Access to the Single Market is clearly the next best option for us economically, but it is no easy option.

Second, we must hold the Brexiteers, and this Brexit Government, to account for the promises they made to the people. Where is the £350m a week they promised for the NHS? Where is the miraculous solution to immigration? When will we become the land of milk and honey they told us beckons outside the EU? With triumph in the referendum comes the accountability of victory – we must show up these false Brexit promises for what they are.

Third, we must reinsert Parliament and the discretion of MPs into the process. After all, much of the ‘take back control’ narrative of the Brexiteers hinged on the need to reclaim our parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament deserves its say. When the autumn comes the Government must produce a Brexit plan and put it to Parliament. We must be given a vote of consent before Article 50 is triggered and again when the negotiations are complete.

There is a clear precedent for this – and it was Theresa May herself who set it as Home Secretary in the Coalition. In the last Parliament, under terms agreed in the Lisbon Treaty, the Government exercised its right to opt out of a slew of EU judicial and police co-operation measures before choosing which to opt back into, including the European Arrest Warrant and our involvement in Europol. Because the Liberal Democrats insisted on maintaining those effective crime-fighting measures in the teeth of opposition from right-wingers on the Tory backbenches we agreed, at Theresa May and David Cameron’s behest, that we would have a vote of consent in Parliament at both the beginning and the end of the process. If it was good enough for a negotiation over police and justice co-operation in the EU, it is surely good enough for the wholesale process of withdrawal from the EU?

In short, we lost the war on whether we are in the EU or not, but there are many more battles to fight and win to make sure the terms of Brexit are good for our country, our economy and for future generations who will have to live with the reality of our new place in the world. We cannot allow Theresa May to be held to ransom by hardline Brexiteers on the Tory backbenches. So our task is to hold the Brexit Government to account and to make sure what comes next is in the interest of the whole country and not just the Conservative Party.

Nick Clegg is the MP for Sheffield Hallam

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