Nick Clegg’s shameful U-turn on cuts

The truth continues to ooze out.

Can you guess who said this?

Look, the decision on how we govern this country and how people vote shouldn't be driven by fear of what the markets might do. Let's say there was a Conservative government. Let's say a Conservative government announced, in that sort of macho way: "We're gonna slash public spending by a third, we'll slash this, we'll slash this, we'll do it tomorrow. We have to take early, tough action."

Just imagine the reaction of my constituents in south-west Sheffield. I represent a constituency that has more people working in public services as a proportion of the workforce than any other constituency in the country. Lots of people working in universities, the hospitals and so on.

They have no Conservative councillors. They have no Conservative MPs. There are no Conservative MPs or Conservative councillors as far as the eye can see in South Yorkshire. People like that are going to say: "Who are these people telling us that they are are going to suddenly take our jobs away? What mandate do they have? I didn't vote for them. No one around here voted for them."

I think if we want to go the direction of Greece, where you get real social and industrial unrest, that's the guaranteed way of doing it.

It was, of course, our beloved Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Sheffield Hallam, speaking at an event organised by the Yorkshire Post on 19 March. (You can watch the video of his remarks here.)

So what happened? Why did he drop his opposition to the Tories' "macho" cuts? And when did he stop worrying about the "reaction" of his constituents in Sheffield?

First, Clegg told the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley on 6 June that a conversation with the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in the wake of the debt crisis in Greece, helped change his mind:

He [King] couldn't have been more emphatic. He said: "If you don't do this, then because of the deterioration of market conditions, it will be even more painful to do it later."

But, as the Guardian reports, at yesterday's Treasury select committee hearing, under questioning from Labour's Chuka Umunna, King revealed that he had said nothing to Clegg during a phone call, on 15 May, that he had not already said in public, most notably at a press conference three days earlier:

I said nothing that was not already in the public domain. In the telephone conversation, I basically repeated what I had said at the press conference . . .

There was nothing I said in that conversation that was different from what I had said in public. When I am needed to give advice, I try to make sure the advice I give is full square in private and in public.

But just as Clegg's "Mervyn made me do it" excuse begins to fall apart -- and, remember, Clegg spoke to King after he had already signed up to the coalition agreement with its "accelerated" deficit reduction programme -- along comes Nick Robinson with his BBC2 documentary Five Days that Changed Britain. Asked by Robinson if he had changed his mind about cuts during the five days of negotiations, Clegg says:

I changed my mind earlier than that . . . Firstly remember between March and the actual general election . . . a financial earthquake occurred on our European doorstep.

Hmm. Yet see Clegg's comments (above) in Yorkshire. Does he sound like a man who is having second thoughts about the Lib Dems' opposition to "early" cuts? Does he give any indication to the audience that he plans to junk the Lib Dems' position on the timing of so-called fiscal consolidation? And did he, at any stage during the election campaign, a month later, even hint that he was going to perform such a sharp U-turn on the biggest election and economic issue of all?

As Chuka Umunna puts it:

If Nick Clegg changed his mind on such an important issue during the election campaign, why did he choose not to share this epiphany with the electorate?

The Liberal Democrats fought the election campaign vehemently opposing the Conservatives' economic policies, and the public deserves a full explanation of when and why Mr Clegg reversed his views on the economy.

Will we get one? No.


On a side note, the more revelations that emerge about those five days of coalition negotiations, the more I feel like reaching for the late Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Britain. I mean, should the governor of the Bank of England really be intervening, directly or indirectly, in such important political decisions? Should the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell (or "God", as he is nicknamed by colleagues, according to Nick Robinson), have been advising Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiators in their first meeting with the Cabinet Ooffice "that "the more comprehensive the agreement" between the two parties, the more it would reassure the markets"?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Manchester united: "A minority of absolute idiots are trying to break us apart"

At the vigil, one man's T-shirt read: "The only thing that's allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry."

A day after one of the worst atrocities in the history of the city, Manchester's people were keen to show the world the resilience of the Mancunian spirit.

Dom's, an Italian restaurant, is in walking distance from Manchester Arena, where 22 people lost their lives to a suicide bomber the night before. On Tuesday, the staff were giving out free coffee, tea and pizza to anyone who needed it. On a table outside, there was a condolences book, and teary passersby left RIP messages to those who perished. Under a bright blue sky, the community seemed more united than ever, the goodwill pouring out of everyone I met. But the general mood was sombre. 

"We need to make space for healing and for building up our community again, and just getting people to feel comfortable in their own city," the Dean of Manchester, Rogers Govendor, told me.

The terrorist has been named as Salman Ramadan Abedi, a 22-year-old Mancunian of Libyan descent. But with a population of 600,000, Manchester is a cosmopolitan hub, and proud of it. Throughout the day I encountered people of all skin shades and religions. On one of the roads off Albert Square, a couple of Orthodox Jewish boys set up a little stand, where people could grab a bottle of water and, if they so desired, hold hands and pray.

On the night of the tragedy, Muslim and Sikh cab drivers turned off the meter and made their way to Manchester Arena to offer free rides to anyone - many of them injured - who trying to escape the mayhem and reach safety. "It's what we do around here," my taxi driver said with a thick Arabic accent.

The dissonance between the increasingly frantic debate on social media and what was discussed on the streets was stark. I spoke, on and off the record, with about two dozen residents, eavesdropped on a number of conversations, and not once did I hear anyone speaking out against the cultural melting pot that Manchester is today. If anything, people were more eager than ever to highlight it. 

"Manchester has always been hugely multicultural, and people always pull together at times of trouble and need," said Andrew Hicklin. "They are not going to change our society and who we are as people. We live free lives."

It was also a day where political divisions were put aside. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn agreed to suspend their campaigns. For the next few days there will be no Labour vs Tory, no Brexiteer vs Remainer, at least not in this part of the country. This city has closed ranks and nothing will be allowed to come between that cohesion.

"I don't demonise anyone," said Dennis Bolster, who stopped by to sign the condolences book outside Dom's. "I just know a small minority of absolute idiots, driven by whatever they think they are driven by, are the people who are trying to break us apart."

Later in the day, as people were getting off work, thousands flocked to Albert Square to show their respects to the victims. Members of the Sikh community entered the square carrying "I love MCR" signs. The crowd promptly applauded. A middle-aged man wore a T-shirt which said: "The only thing that's allowed to be separated by colour is the laundry." A moment of silent was observed. It was eerie, at times overwhelmingly sad. But it was also moving and inspiring.

Local poet Tony Walsh brought brief respite from the pain when he recited "This is the Place", his ode to the city and its people. The first verse went:

This is the place In the north-west of England. It’s ace, it’s the best

And the songs that we sing from the stands, from our bands

Set the whole planet shaking.

Our inventions are legends. There’s nowt we can’t make, and so we make brilliant music

We make brilliant bands

We make goals that make souls leap from seats in the stands

On stage, everyday political foes became temporary allies. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, home secretary Amber Rudd, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham and house speaker John Bercow all brushed shoulders. Their message was clear: "we are Manchester too."

The vigil lasted a little over half an hour. On other occasions, a crowd this size in the centre of Manchester would give authorities reason for concern. But not this time. Everyone was in their best behaviour. Only a few were drinking. 

As Mancunians made their way home, I went over to a family that had been standing not far from me during the vigil. The two children, a boy and a girl, both not older than 10, were clutching their parents' hands the whole time. I asked dad if he will give them a few extra hugs and kisses as he tucks them in tonight. "Oh, absolutely," he said. "Some parents whose children went to the concert last night won't ever get to do that again. It's heartbreaking."

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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