Are the Tories losing patience with Clegg?

Downing Street used to deal with Lib Dem "differentiation" with casual condescension. Now the tone i

There was an intriguing flicker of dissent on the government benches during Prime Minister's Questions today when Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat MP for West Cornwall, asked David Cameron if he would consider abandoning the bill containing controversial health reforms. (He won't.)

As rebellious interventions go it was fairly tame, since quite a lot of Tory MPs privately wish the bungled and unloved health reforms would go away. Still, it was a blunt display of Lib Dem assertiveness, which is, apparently the party's plan for 2012. As I wrote earlier this year, Lib Dem strategists have decided to treat Cameron's European veto -- a humiliation for the avowedly Europhile Nick Clegg -- as a licence to "dial up differentiation." In other words, with the Tories surging ahead in areas close to their hearts, it was time for Lib Dems to start making their voices heard a bit louder.

This new, slightly more churlish attitude to coalition is also the best context in which to see the emerging row over "Boris Island". the London mayor's vision of a floating airport in the Thames estuary. Cameron has said he is interested; Clegg was apparently all signed up. Now, suddenly, the Lib Dems have got cold feet. The Tory explanation -- delivered with some irritation -- is that the junior coalition partner doesn't want to go along with something that would boost Conservative chances in mayoral and London Assembly elections in May.

It is noteworthy that the Tories are responding to Lib Dem meddling with some fairly aggressive briefing. This is relatively new. In the past, Downing Street has been happy to have Tory backbenchers let off steam, complaining about the "yellow bastards" with whom they are trapped in partnership. But the standard response from Conservatives in government to Clegg and his team seeking credit for policy or boasting about how they killed Tory ideas always used to be carefully calibrated condescension. The line was that it was better to rise above such petty games. Towards the end of last year, this was upgraded to a more pointed "we don't think it really helps them much" -- the implication being that the Lib Dems embarrass themselves by point-scoring in coalition all the time.

Now it seems Number 10 is taking a more robust approach. The Telegraph's Ben Brogan has an illuminating insight in his column this morning, including some pretty terse remarks about Clegg, his party's uncollegiate tendencies and, astonishingly, his continental ancestry. A source close to the prime minister is reported noting that the Lib Dem leader is "quite foreign you know" adding that "no-one has noticed but there isn't much that is British about him."

It has been noted before that Clegg brings a continental approach to politics that doesn't always gel that well with Westminster's knockabout culture. But this attempt to portray his Europhilia as intrinsically suspect in some deeper sense represents a stepping up of internal coalition hostilities. The Lib Dems have long been amenable to a bit of casual Cameron-bashing on the side. The Tories mostly turned the other cheek. If both parties start hurling insults around things could quickly get out of hand.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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If the cuts are necessary, where's Philip Hammond's deficit target gone?

The Chancellor ripped up his predecessor's plans and has no plan to replace them. What's going on?

Remember austerity?

I’m not talking about the cuts to public services, which are very much still ongoing. I’m talking about the economic argument advanced by the Conservatives from the financial crisis in 2007-8 up until the European referendum: that unlesss the British government got hold of its public finances and paid down its debt, the United Kingdom would be thrown into crisis as its creditors would get nervous.

That was the rationale for a programme of cuts well in excess of anything their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, campaigned on in the run-up to the 201 election. It was the justification for cuts to everything from English language lessons to library hours. It was the stick used to beat Labour in the 2015 election. Now it justifies cuts to payments to families that lose a parent, to mental health services and much else besides.

Which is odd, because there’s something missing from this election campaign: any timetable from the Tories about when, exactly, they intend to pay all that money back. Neither the government’s day-to-day expenditure nor its existing debt can meaningfully be said to be any closer to being brought into balance than they were in 2010.

To make matters worse, Philip Hammond has scrapped George Osborne’s timetable and plan to secure both a current account surplus and to start paying off Britain’s debts. He has said he will bring forward his own targets, but thus far, none have been forthcoming.

Which is odd, because if the nervousness of Britain’s creditors is really something to worry about, their causes for worry have surely increased since 2015, not decreased. Since then, the country has gone from a byword for political stability to shocking the world with its vote to leave the European Union. The value of its currency has plummetted. Its main opposition party is led by a man who, according to the government at least, is a dangerous leftist, and, more to the point, a dangerous leftist that the government insists is on the brink of taking power thanks to the SNP. Surely the need for a clear timetable from the only party offering “strong and stable” government is greater than ever?

And yet: the government has no serious plan to close the deficit and seems more likely to add further spending commitments, in the shape of new grammar schools, and the possible continuation of the triple lock on pensions.  There seems to be no great clamour for Philip Hammond to lay out his plans to get the deficit under control.

What gives?

Could it all, possibly, have been a con to advance the cause of shrinking the state?

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

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