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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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