Clegg warns Tories not to demonise public sector

Deputy PM criticises ministers for polarising public and private sector workers.

With all eyes on Brussels, Nick Clegg's speech this morning on cities received little attention. But it contained one particularly notable passage on the public sector. The Deputy PM appeared to criticise Tory ministers for allowing the economic debate to become "polarised" between public sector workers and private sector workers.

He said:

I know that some of our public sector workers bristle when they hear Ministers talk about paring back the public sector and letting business lead the recovery ... what will hurt both groups is if we now allow this debate to become polarised - as if our dilemma is helping the public sector versus the private sector.

The North versus the South. Picking industry or picking banking. Because if we play into these bygone caricatures of the left and the right, if we allow our society to fracture into these camps, that is the surest way to drag the UK back to the 1980s.

Clegg's words were a subtle rebuke to those Tories who suggest that they will gain politically from a smaller public sector and a larger private sector (one senior Tory told the Spectator's James Forsyth: 'You create a bigger private sector, you create more Tories"). The tension surrounding this issue has increased after the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast (see box 3.6 on p. 95) in the autumn statement that 710,000 public sector jobs would be lost by 2017, 310,000 more than previously thought, and that 1.7 million private sector jobs would be created.

One could add that the government has cynically set private and public sector workers against each other for the sake of its pension reforms. Supporters of the reforms frequently note that two-thirds of private-sector employees do not even have a company pension, compared to just 12 per cent of public-sector workers. But this is an argument for improving provision in the private sector, not for driving it down in the public sector. Indeed, many pensionless private-sector workers depend on their partner's public-sector pension to ensure a basic standard of living in old age.

But that's not an argument Clegg will be making anytime soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.