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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Why Clive Lewis was furious when a Trident pledge went missing from his speech

The shadow defence secretary is carving out his own line on security. 

Clive Lewis’s first conference speech as shadow defence secretary has been overshadowed by a row over a last-minute change to his speech, when a section saying that he “would not seek to change” Labour’s policy on renewing Trident submarines disappeared.

Lewis took the stage expecting to make the announcement and was only notified of the change via a post-it note, having reportedly signed it of with the leader’s office in advance. 

Lewis was, I’m told, “fucking furious”, and according to Kevin Schofield over at PoliticsHome, is said to have “punched a wall” in anger at the change. The finger of blame is being pointed at Jeremy Corbyn’s press chief, Seumas Milne.

What’s going on? The important political context is the finely-balanced struggle for power on Labour’s ruling national executive committee, which has tilted away from Corbyn after conference passed a resolution to give the leaders of the Welsh and Scottish parties the right to appoint a representative each to the body. (Corbyn, as leader, has the right to appoint three.)  

One of Corbyn’s more resolvable headaches on the NEC is the GMB, who are increasingly willing to challenge  the Labour leader, and who represent many of the people employed making the submarines themselves. An added source of tension in all this is that the GMB and Unite compete with one another for members in the nuclear industry, and that being seen to be the louder defender of their workers’ interests has proved a good recruiting agent for the GMB in recent years. 

Strike a deal with the GMB over Trident, and it could make passing wider changes to the party rulebook through party conference significantly easier. (Not least because the GMB also accounts for a large chunk of the trade union delegates on the conference floor.) 

So what happened? My understanding is that Milne was not freelancing but acting on clear instruction. Although Team Corbyn are well aware a nuclear deal could ease the path for the wider project, they also know that trying to get Corbyn to strike a pose he doesn’t agree with is a self-defeating task. 

“Jeremy’s biggest strength,” a senior ally of his told me, “is that you absolutely cannot get him to say something he doesn’t believe, and without that, he wouldn’t be leader. But it can make it harder for him to be the leader.”

Corbyn is also of the generation – as are John McDonnell and Diane Abbott – for whom going soft on Trident was symptomatic of Neil Kinnock’s rightward turn. Going easy on this issue was always going be nothing doing. 

There are three big winners in all this. The first, of course, are Corbyn’s internal opponents, who will continue to feel the benefits of the GMB’s support. The second is Iain McNicol, formerly of the GMB. While he enjoys the protection of the GMB, there simply isn’t a majority on the NEC to be found to get rid of him. Corbyn’s inner circle have been increasingly certain they cannot remove McNicol and will insead have to go around him, but this confirms it.

But the third big winner is Lewis. In his praise for NATO – dubbing it a “socialist” organisation, a reference to the fact the Attlee government were its co-creators – and in his rebuffed attempt to park the nuclear issue, he is making himeslf the natural home for those in Labour who agree with Corbyn on the economics but fear that on security issues he is dead on arrival with the electorate.  That position probably accounts for at least 40 per cent of the party membership and around 100 MPs. 

If tomorrow’s Labour party belongs to a figure who has remained in the trenches with Corbyn – which, in my view, is why Emily Thornberry remains worth a bet too – then Clive Lewis has done his chances after 2020 no small amount of good. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.