Will Clegg cave in on freezing benefits?

Lib Dem leader may agree to Osborne's benefits freeze in exchange for a wealth tax.

Last year it was the Liberal Democrats, along with Iain Duncan Smith, who vetoed George Osborne's plan to freeze benefits on the grounds that the poorest should not be squeezed even more. Now, with his deficit reduction programme increasingly off track, the Chancellor has come back for a second try. As I wrote yesterday, Osborne is reportedly considering freezing most benefits for two years and then linking them to wages, rather than prices (the former are expected to rise more slowly than the latter, a sure sign of a depressed economy). The plan would hit the poorest hardest and further depress growth (the poor spend, rather than save, what little they receive) but Osborne, a man with a deficit target to meet, will likely wave away such quibbles.

And it looks as if he may get his way. Today's Sun reports a source close to Clegg as saying, "This is a time of incredible economic challenges and we have to look at all the options available." It's the sort of story perfectly timed to unsettle the Lib Dem faithful as they gather  for their annual conference in Brighton this weekend. The party, most of whose activists remain solidly social democratic, has already accepted £18bn of welfare cuts (Osborne is attempting to secure a further £10bn), will it really acquiesce to yet another raid on the poorest? Provided certain conditions are met, the answer is yes. Clegg has openly said that he is willing to agree to further welfare cuts in exchange for some form of wealth tax.

He told the Guardian last month: "The blunt truth is that we will need to find further savings in welfare. It constitutes close to a third of total government expenditure ... Welfare reform does have a continuing role. But that has to be done in a way which starts at the top rather than starts at the bottom."

But if Clegg does want to strike a grand bargain with Osborne he had better make sure it is one worthy of the name. Before the 50p tax rate was abolished, we were told that the Lib Dems would only accept such a move in return for the introduction of a "mansion tax". Yet the rate was scrapped and all Clegg's party received in return was a higher rate of stamp duty on £2m properties and some token action on tax avoidance. In the eyes of the voters, the Lib Dems were complicit in a giveaway to the richest. If Clegg is to avoid relinquishing any more credibility, he must not repeat this error.

George Osborne is considering a two-year freeze on most benefits. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The struggles of Huma Abedin

On the behind-the-scenes story of Hillary Clinton’s closest aide.

In a dreary campaign, it was a moment that shone: Hillary Clinton, on the road to the caucus in Iowa, stopping at a Mexican fast-food restaurant to eat and somehow passing unrecognised. Americans of all political persuasions gleefully speculated over what her order – a chicken burrito bowl with guacamole – revealed about her frame of mind, while supporters gloated that the grainy security-camera footage seemed to show Clinton with her wallet out, paying for her own lunch. Here was not the former first lady, senator and secretary of state, known to people all over the world. This was someone’s unassuming grandmother, getting some food with her colleagues.

It might be unheard of for Clinton to go unrecognised but, for the woman next to her at the till, blending into the background is part of the job. Huma Abedin, often referred to as Clinton’s “shadow” by the US media, is now the vice-chair of her presidential campaign. She was Clinton’s deputy chief of staff at the state department and has been a personal aide since the late 1990s.

Abedin first met Clinton in 1996 when she was 19 and an intern at the White House, assigned to the first lady’s office. She was born in Michigan in 1976 to an Indian father and a Pakistani mother. When Abedin was two, they moved from the US to Saudi Arabia. She returned when she was 18 to study at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Her father was an Islamic scholar who specialised in interfaith reconciliation – he died when she was 17 – and her mother is a professor of sociology.

While the role of “political body woman” may once have been a kind of modern maid, there to provide a close physical presence and to juggle the luggage and logistics, this is no longer the case. During almost 20 years at Clinton’s side, Abedin has advised her boss on everything from how to set up a fax machine – “Just pick up the phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up” – to policy on the Middle East. When thousands of Clinton’s emails were made public (because she had used a private, rather than a government, server for official communication), we glimpsed just how close they are. In an email from 2009, Clinton tells her aide: “Just knock on the door to the bedroom if it’s closed.”

Abedin shares something else with Clinton, outside of their professional ties. They are both political wives who have weathered their husbands’ scandals. In what felt like a Lewinsky affair for the digital age, in 2011, Abedin’s congressman husband, Anthony Weiner, resigned from office after it emerged that he had shared pictures of his genitals with strangers on social media. A second similar scandal then destroyed his attempt to be elected mayor of New York in 2013. In an ironic twist, it was Bill Clinton who officiated at Abedin’s and Weiner’s wedding in 2010. At the time, Hillary is reported to have said: “I have one daughter. But if I had a second daughter, it would [be] Huma.” Like her boss, Abedin stood by her husband and now Weiner is a house husband, caring for their four-year-old son, Jordan, while his wife is on the road.

Ellie Foreman-Peck

A documentary filmed during Weiner’s abortive mayoral campaign has just been released in the US. Weiner shows Abedin at her husband’s side, curtailing his more chaotic tendencies, always flawless with her red lipstick in place. Speaking to the New York Observer in 2007, three years before their marriage, Weiner said of his future wife: “This notion that Senator Clinton is a cool customer – I mean, I don’t dispute it, but the coolest customer in that whole operation is Huma . . . In fact, I think there’s some dispute as to whether Huma’s actually human.” In the film, watching her preternatural calm under extraordinary pressure, you can see what he means.

In recent months, Abedin’s role has changed. She is still to be found at Clinton’s side – as the burrito photo showed – but she is gradually taking a more visible role in the organisation overall, as they pivot away from the primaries to focus on the national race. She meets with potential donors and endorsers on Clinton’s behalf and sets strategy. When a running mate is chosen, you can be sure that Abedin will have had her say on who it is. There’s a grim symmetry to the way politics looks in the US now: on one side, the Republican candidate Donald Trump is calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country; on the other, the presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton relies ever more on her long-time Muslim-American staffer.

Years before Trump, notable Republicans were trying to make unpleasant capital out of Abedin’s background. In 2012, Tea Party supporters alleged that she was linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and its attempt to gain access “to top Obama officials”. In her rare interviews, Abedin has spoken of how hurtful these baseless statements were to her family – her mother still lives in Saudi Arabia. Later, the senator and former Republican presidential candidate John McCain spoke up for her, saying that Abedin represented “what is best about America”.

Whether senior figures in his party would do the same now remains to be seen.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad