Nick Clegg struggles to defend the “progressive” Budget

In a heated interview with John Humphrys on the Today programme, the Deputy PM appeared to flounder

Nick Clegg was in the Today programme hot seat this morning, being grilled on the coalition Budget's "progressive" credentials in a 15-minute interview with the veteran BBC attack-dog John Humphrys.

Humphrys taxed Clegg with "the most significant reversal of the welfare state since World War II", and asked whether when he took over the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 2007 he thought he would find himself co-operating to push through a Budget that "would hit the poor harder than the rich".

Clegg did his best to refute Humphrys, saying that the measures announced in the Budget would in fact oblige the top 10 per cent to make eight times the cash contribution than the lowest-paid.

But he also said that he preferred not disappear into the "undergrowth of claims and counterclaims about the statistics of the Budget", only to be rebuked by Humphrys, who pointed out that "we can't lightly dismiss all the statistics, because they are what it's about in the end".

This opening exchange set the tone for the entire interview, with Clegg always trying to move away from details of the impact of specific measures into well-rehearsed generalities about "fairness", "difficult decisions" and the "inherited mess".

When Humphrys challenged the Deputy Prime Minister with the statement from the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) describing this Budget, minus the measures inherited from the Labour goverment, as "regressive", Clegg floundered, attempting to say that the report did not take into account "any attempts we might make to instil fairness in future budgets", and could thus be discounted.

Gone was the smooth orator who instigated "Cleggmania" after the first televised leaders' debate. Instead, we heard a harassed-sounding Deputy PM, who failed to defend the measures of his goverment and quibbled over the semantics of the critical IFS report.

Every time Clegg appeared to approach a valid point, as in the case of the coalition raising the minimum threshold for paying tax, Humphrys was ready with an awkward fact that made him seem out of touch with the real message. In attempting to pass off the freezing of child tax credits as "difficult decisions I wish we didn't have to take", Humphrys was ready with the retort "it isn't just about difficult decisions, it's about things you said you wouldn't do".

VAT was another big stumbling block for Clegg, as Humphrys pointed to the campaign poster that the Lib Dems used to attack the Tories over the issue, as well as the Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes's statement of his own opposition to the "most regressive" tax. Clegg's response, that "no party in the general election campaign ruled out that we might have to raise VAT", was greeted with derision from Humphrys, who exclaimed, "That is disingenuous!" only to receive an incoherent rebuttal from the under-pressure Clegg.

In extremis, Clegg resorted to the old trick of blaming the coalition's predecessors for the measures in the austerity Budget, only to slip up again and say: "If we were to sit on our hands as the Labour government is, sorry the Labour Party is doing . . ."

Finally, confronted with Richard Grayson's recent remark that the Liberal Democrats are now "a centre-left party that is being led from the centre-right", Clegg responded:

I am a Liberal politician to my fingertips . . . and I think there's something morally wrong with sitting on our hands and risking a double-dip recession.

It was the only moment in the entire interview when Clegg managed to turn an answer round to make his own point, something at which he has previously shown himself to be very adept.

The impression listeners will have taken from this interview is of a politician under strain, and failing to address the fundamental question couched so succinctly by Humphrys:

Why should the poorest 10 per cent pay anything to get us out of this mess? They're the poorest.

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Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times