I disagree with Nick

The Lib Dem leader has to come clean about his U-turn on spending cuts.

When did Nick Clegg change his mind on spending cuts? It's a simple question but after much flip-flopping we are none the wiser.

On last week's BBC documentary Five Days that Changed Britain, the Deputy Prime Minister told Nick Robinson that events "between March and the actual general election" triggered his Damascene conversion to Conservative economic thinking: he, too, thinks deep and immediate spending cuts are necessary.

So did he change his mind before or after telling the electorate in March that "merrily slashing now is an act of economic masochism" and that "of course" he would not compromise on this in any coalition negotiations?

Did he change his mind before or after telling Jeremy Paxman in April: "Do I think that these big, big cuts are merited or justified at a time when the economy is struggling to get to its feet? Clearly not."

Or did he change his mind less than a week before polling day when he said to Reuters on 1 May: "My eight-year-old ought to be able to work this out -- you shouldn't start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing. If you do that you create more joblessness, you create heavier costs on the state, the deficit goes up even further and the pain with dealing with it is even greater. So it is completely irrational."

Since the election, the Deputy Prime Minster has been less than forthcoming about what he thought and when he thought it.

On 12 May he concluded the coalition agreement with the Tories -- his new partners in fiscal retrenchment -- and promised a "significantly accelerated" deficit reduction plan, referring to "immediate cuts". On 6 June, in an interview in the Observer, he acknowledged that his view had "shifted", citing as reasons the events in Greece and a conversation with the governor of the Bank of England around the time the full coalition agreement was being finalised.

So far as Clegg's Greek defence is concerned, the governor told the Treasury select committee in February that "I do not think you can compare the UK with Greece". In fact, Clegg himself had claimed in March that "the guaranteed way" of producing Greek-style unrest would be "macho", deep, immediate spending cuts.

As for their big conversation, Mervyn King told me last week at a hearing of the newly constituted Treasury select committee that he had given Clegg no new information on the debt situation during their chat. Indeed, the day after our hearing last week, it was revealed that Clegg had changed his mind before the election -- an election in which he sought votes on the basis set out in his manifesto:

If spending is cut too soon, it would undermine the much-needed recovery and cost jobs. Our working assumption is that the economy will be in a stable enough condition to bear cuts from the beginning of 2011-12.

So, having disposed of the reasons cited by the Deputy Prime Minister for his change of position, we are left with a far more serious question: why did Clegg not tell the electorate that he would follow Conservative economic policy before 6.8 million people cast their votes for him on 6 May?

Did Clegg not think the British people deserved to know what they would be voting for? According to last weekend's Sunday Times, Clegg had not even informed his Treasury team -- Vince Cable included -- of the line he would take once the polls shut. A full and frank explanation is needed, otherwise the electorate, never mind his MPs, will be entitled to ask: How can we trust anything you say?

Chuka Umunna is the Labour MP for Streatham and a member of the Commons Treasury select committee.

Chuka Umunna is Labour MP for Streatham.

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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

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