Clegg puts EU principles first

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IN many regards, Nick Clegg’s resilience has become one of this coalition’s defining features.

The Sheffield Hallam MP is now referred to by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, as “poor old Cleggers” in a condescending manner while his pro-European stance continues to enrage right-wing newspapers like the Sun whose latest trenchant Editorial began with this withering sentence: “There’s only one crumb of comfort for David Cameron from our devastating poll on the Euro elections: He’s not Nick Clegg.”

Yet the Deputy Prime Minister had a legitimate point yesterday when he accused his Conservative coalition colleagues of pursuing an “unholy bidding war” with the United Kingdom Independence Party ahead of May’s European elections – and the 2015 general election which will make or break Mr Cameron’s premiership. This has not become a debate about whether Britain’s best economic interests rest with Brussels or not – it has become an undignified battle of ideologies that is unlikely to be reconciled until the UK leaves the European Union.

It may be unfashionable to do so, but two points should be made in defence of Mr Clegg. First, he is a man of principle – he is prepared to put his party’s longstanding principles on EU membership before short-term electoral calculations and it takes a bold leader to stand up to popular public opinion. He may not be rewarded at the ballot box, but his critics – including Mr Johnson – are the self-same individuals who also lament the gradual decline of conviction politics in this country.

Second, the Lib Dems have helped to provide a far more stable government than many predicted in May 2010. They may have held back some Tory policies, but their influence has led to profound changes to the tax system and put a brake on those right-wing Tories who want Britain to exit the EU before considering the consequences for exports, jobs and so on.

As this newspaper argued yesterday, Britain’s financial future must come before any rash political calculations – and that means a far more dignified debate than the one currently taking place, and which will, regrettably, only become more unseemly as polling day approaches.

School heads up

THERE is considerable merit to moves to parachute 100 top headteachers into struggling schools to help drive up standards – best practice needs to be shared if even more youngsters are to prosper in later life. It remains perplexing that the gulf in standards at neighbouring schools can be so vast and greater co-operation should be beneficial.

However, two caveats do need to be made. First, these super-heads will want to maintain standards at their existing school. Having gone to extraordinary lengths to reverse the fortunes of the schools in question, they know that they will have to work even harder to meet the raised expectations of parents and politicians like Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Complacency is not an option and a timeless adage does offer a gentle reminder that there are only so many hours in a day.

Second, there is actually more to education than GCSE results – or national age-group tests now undertaken by children. There are some schools that are, frankly, working miracles with their pupils, even though their results still fall short of Mr Gove’s wishes. More credit needs to be given to these successes, and how this momentum can be maintained.

The disappointment, therefore, is that this week’s North of England Education Conference became sidetracked by Labour’s plan to introduce a teacher licensing scheme – a similar proposal was dropped by the party when Ed Balls was Education Secretary – rather than reminding the country that schools will only flourish if there is a three-way partnership between headteachers, parents and pupils.

Yes, Mr Gove – and his Lib Dem deputy David Laws – are right to challenge heads to do even more, but this does require more parents playing an active role in the upbringing of their children.

Fracking facts

IT is already clear that fracking has the potential to become as divisive as HS2 – and Britain’s relationship with the EU. Even though the Government regards this as the answer to Britain’s energy crisis, objectors have not been afraid to express concerns about the environmental impact.

It remains to be seen who is right, but it will require some give and take on both sides if the necessary test drilling is to take place. The package of measures outlined for local communities has been described as “formidable” by Energy Minister Michael Fallon, while many Northern MPs, and especially those on the Labour benches, concluded that the offer was “derisory”.

Such emotive language is unlikely to advance either standpoint at a time when Britain is facing an energy crisis unless significant steps are taken to start harnessing new sources of power – whether it be nuclear, offshore wind or fracking, which has led to a significant reduction in America’s energy bills. In short, a way needs to be found to reconcile the agendas of energy policy-makers and environmentalists.