The Clegg/Cameron doorstep face-off

Why they can’t keep their hands off each other.

I want you to watch this video very carefully. And then again. And then maybe once more.


Have you ever seen so much hand action in your life? To start with, there's the classic handshake-plus-arm-grab from Nick Clegg. Solid, friendly, keen. Then the handshake hardens, becomes immobile, as though they're both playing chicken -- neither willing to let go first. I bet someone had a finger crushed at this point (although neither really seems the finger-crushing type).

There follows the genial back-tap by David Cameron, a classically patronising movement. But just when we've got used to the formation, up go their arms! It's like a Siamese wave! Or synchronised swimmers! They must have practised -- that kind of perfect execution doesn't come for free -- so symmetrical, balanced, rhythmic. And both, if you look closely, wearing that same clenched smile, the one that says: "Yup. Here we are. Pretty big day. And I'm responsible and serious, and ready to run this goddam country, in case you were wondering."

Quickly, and tellingly, we're back into competition -- neither wants to bring his arm down first, like two kids in a breath-holding contest, suffering agony in order to claim victory. And then the wonderful, clinching double-back-clap-and-wave manoeuvre, so often attempted, so rarely achieved.

They really excel themselves here. Yet still that element of competition -- if you clap my back, I'll clap yours just that much harder: I am the greater statesman, and this back-clap proves it once and for all!

Who wins? Well, it's clear, isn't it? Cameron swings back in with that final back-tap, which develops, outrageously, into a back-clasp, hardly ever attempted on these shores. He hasn't let go by the time the film ends -- I imagine they're still locked in that position as they embark on their first meeting, Cameron awkwardly refusing to surrender his puppet-holding clutch on Clegg's jacket.

Who would have thought 20 seconds of film could essentially tell you all you need to know about our new government?

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.