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 web editor of the New Statesman.

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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.