David Laws: Cameron's true-blue wingman

The Lib Dem will say things even David Cameron won’t.

David Cameron has continued his efforts to open up some “clear blue water” between his own party and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, he trails a plan to scrap housing benefit for under-25s. He says:

A couple will say, “We are engaged, we are both living with our parents, we are trying to save before we get married and have children and be good parents. But how does it make us feel, Mr Cameron, when we see someone who goes ahead, has the child, gets the council home, gets the help that isn’t available to us?”’

‘One is trapped in a welfare system that discourages them from working, the other is doing the right thing and getting no help.
It’s a measure guaranteed to be unpopular with Liberal Democrats, but also seemed tailor-made to discourage anyone under the age of 25 from voting Conservative.

For a glimpse into what this cut could mean for many young people, you can't do better than to read Petra Davis' piece on it from earlier this year.

There are also hints that plans to limit child benefit to a couples first three children are back on the table, although the MoS states that he won’t be doint that “unless he wins public support, and even then it won’t be until after the next election.”

However, David Cameron receives help from an unexpected quarter this morning in his efforts to assert his diehard Tory-ness. David Laws has given an interview to the Sunday Telegraph in which he discusses the need for deeper tax and spending cuts. Only health, education and pension spending should be protected, he argues:

We are going to have to see a shrinking of the state share of the economy until it is back into kilter with the amount of tax people are prepared to be pay… Future UK governments should consider a further substantial rise in the personal tax allowance, along with lower marginal tax rates of tax at all income levels.

Whenever Laws makes an intervention like this (which he has done periodically since leaving the Cabinet in 2010), the likes of Paul Goodman at ConservativeHome call for his return to the top ranks of government, although quite who Laws could practically replace is far from clear.

I’m not so sure Laws is headed back to a ministerial position, though. He seems to be doing an excellent job of being David Cameron’s true-blue wingman, saying the truly Tory things that a Conservative PM fearful of his chances of ever securing a majority shies a way from. Laws blurs the lines between the coalition partners. If he comes back inside the Cabinet room, the differences and disagreements will suddenly look a lot starker.

David Laws during the coalition negotiations in 2010. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.