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Whether You Voted Leave or Remain, Thank Goodness Nick Clegg Is Brexit Scrutineer-in-Chief

July 29, 2016 1:45 PM
By Owen Bennett in HuffPost Politics

On June 23, the UK was divided into three groups: Leavers, Remainers and non-voters.

Now, we are all in one group: Waiters.

We are all waiting to see what the three Brexiteers - Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson - do next.

We are all waiting to see if the UK gets access to the Single Market.

We are all waiting to see if freedom of movement into the UK is scrapped.

We are all waiting to see if those trade deals we were promised will materialise.

But one person is not waiting, and that is Nick Clegg.

Remember him? The former deputy prime minister who helped prop up David Cameron as Prime Minister for five years in what became a near-fatal act for his own party?

After the 2015 General Election, Clegg laid low. When new Lib Dem leader Tim Farron dished out shadow portfolios, his predecessor was notably absent from the rostra.

Having been bruised by Ukip leader Nigel Farage in two TV debates on the EU ahead of European Parliament elections in 2014, Clegg kept a relatively low-profile during this year's referendum campaign.

Indeed, when he stood up in Parliament and demanded an early election in the wake of Cameron's resignation, many joked it was because he wanted an excuse to quit parliament completely.

But as of last week he is back in front line politics as the Lib Dem's Brexit spokesman - and thank goodness he is too.

Whether you voted Leave or Remain on June 23, you should be pleased Clegg has taken on this role. His knowledge of the intricacies of Brussels is second-to-none. Before becoming an MEP in 1999, Clegg worked as European Commission trade negotiator. Thanks to his five years at the heart of Government, he knows how Whitehall operates. He knows how things are done abroad and at home.

At a briefing with journalists, he released the first of a series of briefing notes on the various dilemmas facing the Brexiteers.

Today's was focused on the UK's access to the Single Market.

Does the Government distinguish between 'access' to the Single Market and 'membership'?

If we are outside the Single Market, will the UK mimic the harmonised rules to make it easier to export to the EU?

Would the Government be prepared to pay in some money to the EU budget to get access to the Single Market, as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland do?

These were just some of the questions he flagged up.

Clegg also questioned why Fox was trying to sort global trade deals before he had settled the UK's relationship with the EU. After all, any country seeking to sign a deal with the UK will want to know exactly what they get out of any agreement.

The same is true of World Trade Organisation rules. Some Brexit campaigners point to the fact that under WTO rules countries can't impose punitive tariffs on the UK, but currently we don't have our own status within the WTO as we are part of the EU. The UK needs to negotiate that agreement, as well as individual trade deals.

What happens to the UK's financial sector, which currently benefits from "passporting rights" whereby banks and other businesses can offer their services across the EU from a UK base? Will that be secured? If so, how?

How does the Government plan to deal with Michel Barnier - the man chosen by the European Commission to handle Brexit negotiations?

These are not hypothetical questions designed to trip up Leave campaigners in the heat of the EU referendum debate.

These are legitimate, nitty-gritty concerns which both sides of the EU debate will want answers to.

It's not as if Labour is able to scrutinise the Three Brexiteers at the moment. The party hasn't even got a Shadow International Trade Secretary, and Emily Thornberry is having to double up as both Shadow Foreign and Shadow Brexit.

The Scottish National Party is too busy trying to convince everyone the UK-wide referendum result does not apply to Scotland, and so will be more focused on looking for loopholes than analysing agreements.

Clegg therefore finds himself in the position of Scrutineer-in-Chief as the Brexiteers get to work.

After a fairly terrible few years, this is the moment Nick Clegg has been waiting for.