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 and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”