Clegg’s contradictions

The Liberal Democrats need to sort out their line of attack on Labour’s “deficit deniers”.

One of the (many) downsides to the Liberal Democrats being in coalition with the Conservatives, and Lib Dem press officers like Lena Pietsch having to serve under Tory spinners like Andy "Bully" Coulson, is that the Lib Dems have had their talking points written for them, word for word, by their Conservative coalition partners.

Take the deficit. I've blogged before about Clegg and Cable's humiliating and inexplicable U-turn on the issue of spending cuts and the timing of deficit reduction, but have you noticed how Tory-esque their attacks on Labour's economic policies seem to have become in recent weeks? The whole Osbornian "deficit denier" stuff has been swallowed wholesale by the Lib Dem front bench.

Last month, in a joint press conference with the Tory party chair, Sayeeda Warsi, the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, said it was "inexcusable" that none of the Labour leadership contenders had come up with any policies to tackle the record Budget deficit. And on Sunday, Danny Alexander wrote to the Labour leadership candidates, accusing them of "opportunism rather than economic competence".

And in yesterday's PMQs, stand-in Nick Clegg, the deputy PM, told the Tory MP Mark Pritchard::

They [Labour] were irresponsible in government, and they are now living in denial in opposition.

He told the Labour MP Nic Dakin:

One hundred thousand members of the public have made suggestions about how we can try to bring some sense to our public finances without hitting the vulnerable and without hitting front-line public services. Have we heard a single suggestion from anyone on the opposition benches? Not a single suggestion.

But, in the same session of PMQs, he said to the Labour MP Joan Walley:

I simply ask the Honourable Lady and her colleagues whether they have any qualms about the fact that her party and her government announced £44bn-worth of cuts but never had the decency or honesty to tell the British people where those cuts would fall.

Hang on! He accepts that Labour had planned "£44bn-worth of cuts", but accuses Labour leadership contenders -- including David Miliband, who is sticking to the Brown/Darling deficit reduction plan -- of being in "denial". Contradiction?

And he tells Dakin (above) that we have not "heard a single suggestion from anyone on the opposition benches" about how to fix the public finances, despite being well aware of the various proposals that have emerged from the five leadership candidates during the course of the campaign.

Take David Miliband, for example, who wants to abolish charitable status for private schools and introduce a mansion tax.

Take Ed Miliband, who wants to retain the bankers' bonus tax.

Take Ed Balls, who wants to introduce a 50p tax rate on those earning more than £100,000.

Take Andy Burnham, who wants to end the ring-fencing of the NHS budget.

Take Diane Abbott, who wants to scrap Trident (something the Deputy PM once wanted to do!).

Now, I accept that most of these proposals have yet to be fleshed out in detail, and none of them on their own (or, for that matter, combined) will eliminate or even halve the structural deficit, but to pretend that we've had nothing but silence from in-denial Labour leadership candidates is simply untrue and absurd.

It also, as I said, flatly contradicts his other line of defence -- Labour planned cuts, too! -- which he deployed against Joan Walley yesterday, and again on the Today programme this morning against John Humphrys.

Get your story straight, Nick!

UPDATE:

I hear Danny Alexander refused to appear on Newsnight yesterday to debate Ed Balls. The shadow schools secretary has, of course, been praised for his grasp of economics and fiscal policy by, among others, centre-right figures such as Irwin Stelzer, Martin Wolf and Boris Johnson (!).

Check out Balls's reply to Alexander's letter to the candidates here.

You can read Mehdi Hasan's politics column each week in the New Statesman magazine.

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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.