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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Why is Marine Le Pen getting more popular?

The latest French polls have people panicked. Here's what's going on. 

In my morning memo today, I wrote that Emmanuel Macron, who is campaigning in London today – the French émigré population makes it an electoral prize in of itself – was in a good position, but was vulnerable, as many of his voters were “on holiday” from the centre-left Socialist Party and the centre-right Republican Party, and he is a relatively new politician, meaning that his potential for dangerous gaffes should not be ruled out.

Now two polls show him slipping. Elabe puts him third, as does Opinionway. More worryingly, Marine Le Pen, the fascist Presidential candidate, is extending her first round lead with Elabe, by two points. Elabe has Le Pen top of the heap with 28 per cent, Republican candidate François Fillon second with 21 per cent, and Macron third with 18.5 per cent. Opinionway has Le Pen down one point to 26 per cent, and Macron and Fillon tied on 21 per cent.
(Under the rules of France’s electoral system, unless one candidate reaches more than half of the vote in the first round, the top two go through to a run-off. All the polls show that Marine Le Pen will top the first round, and have since 2013, before losing heavily in the second. That’s also been the pattern, for the most part, in regional and parliamentary elections.)

What’s going on? Two forces are at play. The first is the specific slippage in Macron’s numbers. Macron ended up in a row last week after becoming the first presidential candidate to describe France’s colonisation of Algeria as a “crime against humanity”, which has hurt him, resulting in a migration of voters back to the main centre-right candidate, François Fillon, which is why he is back in third place, behind Le Pen and Fillon.

Le Pen has been boosted by a bout of rioting following the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man who was sodomised with a police baton.

As I’ve written before, Le Pen’s best hope is that she faces a second round against the scandal-ridden Fillon, who is under fire for employing his wife and children in his parliamentary office, despite the fact there is no evidence of them doing any work at all. She would likely still lose – but an eruption of disorder on the streets or a terrorist attack could help her edge it, just about. (That’s also true if she faced Macron, so far the only other candidate who has come close to making it into the second round in the polling.)

For those hoping that Macron can make it in and prevent the French presidency swinging to the right, there is some good news: tomorrow is Wednesday. Why does that matter? Because Le Canard Enchaîné, the French equivalent of Private Eye which has been leading the investigation into Fillon is out. We’ve known throughout the election that what is good for Fillon is bad for Macron, and vice versa. Macron’s Algeria gaffe has helped Fillon – now Macron must hope that Fillon’s scandal-ridden past has more gifts to give him. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.