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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The post-Brexit power vacuum is hindering the battle against climate change

Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead.

“The UK will not step back from that international leadership [on clean energy]”, the Secretary for climate change, Amber Rudd, told a sea of suits at Wednesday's summit on Business and the environment.

The setting inside London’s ancient Guidlhall helped load her claims with a sense of continuity. But can such rhetoric be believed? Not only have recent events thrown the UK's future ability to lead on climate change into doubt, but a closer look at policy suggests that this government has rarely been leading to start with.

Rudd’s speech came just 24 hours before she laid the order of approval for the UK’s fifth Carbon Budget. This budget will set our 2028-2032 emissions target at a 57 per cent reduction on 1990 levels – in line with the advice of the independent Committee on Climate Change. And comes amidst a party-wide attempt to reassure green business that Britain is open as normal: "I think investors now should feel they have a very clear path ahead," Andrea Leadsom has insisted.

In some respects, those wanting to make the case for an independent UK, could not have wished for a better example than the home-grown carbon budget. The budget is the legal consequence of the UK’s ground-breaking domestic 2008 Climate Change Act, which aims to cut emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. And the new 57 per cent interim target also appears to put the UK ahead of European efforts on the matter - exceeding the EU goal of a 40 per cent emissions reduction.

The announcement will thus allow David Cameron to argue that he has fulfilled his husky-loving promise to provide leadership on the environment. He may even make it the basis for an early ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement, ahead of the European bloc as a whole.

Yet looked at more closely, the carbon budget throws the UK’s claims to climate leadership into serious doubt.

In the short term, its delayed, last moment, release is a dispiriting example of Westminster’s new power-vacuum. Business leaders, such as those at yesterday’s conference, are crying out for “consistent, coherent and predictable national policies” on climate change and emissions reductions. Yet today’s carbon budget can only go so far to maintaining the pretence of stability.

Earlier this week, Amber Rudd responded to a parliamentary question into how Brexit will effect the UK’s climate ambitions with a link to none other than the Prime Minister’s resignation speech. And while concrete progress on policy will have to wait for party-political power struggles politics to run their course, historic Tory hostility to green policy makes progressive change far from certain.

Supporters of Brexiteer Boris Johnson may have played down his opposition to action on climate change in recent days, quipping that he would sooner be “kebabbed with a steak knife over the dining room table” by his environmentalist father. But the recent appointment of UKIP’s Mark Reckless, from a party notorious for its climate scepticism, as the new chairman of the Welsh committee on climate change has sent shock waves through the environmental community and will do little to help allay investor fears.

More concerning still is the 47 per cent shortfall between emission targets and present reality. A progress report released today is damning evidence of the Conservative's long-term neglect of the underlying issues.

Such censure builds upon the findings of a recent study from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit. Far from leading Europe’s major nations on issues of energy and climate change, their research finds the UK to be distinctly middle of the pack. “Of the ‘Big Five’ economies with comparable levels of population size, GDP, ect., Britain ranks third, behind France and Spain but ahead of Italy and Germany”, write authors Matt Finch and Dr Jonathan Marshall.

A significant number of incentives for government action – such as fines for not meeting interim targets on energy efficiency – would also be nullified in the instance of Brexit. And it cannot even be claimed that our long-term ambition is greater than Europe’s: the UK’s target is an 80 per cent cut between 1990-2050, and the EU’s is 80-95 per cent.

News that the manufacturing giant Siemens is suspending new investment into its UK-based offshore wind operations could thus be set to prove symptomatic of a wider trend. And ministers must act fast to turn promises into policy.

Even  Michael Gove - the man who once wanted to take climate change off the curriculum – now describes as one of the world’s greatest challenges. While according  to the new shadow secretary for energy and climate change, Barry Gardiner: “The government can no longer wait until December to publish its Carbon Plan. It must do so now.”  

Included in such a plan should be clarification of the UK’s relationship to European emissions trading, the development of a Carbon Capture & Storage strategy, and urgent action on heating and transport efficiency. The 5th Carbon Budget is an important step towards this process but Brexit turmoil should not distract from the enormity of the task ahead. Nor from the damning fragility of Cameron’s environmental legacy to date.

 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.