PMQs review: Clegg's assault on Labour cheers the Tories

The Deputy PM shouted himself hoarse as he defended the coalition's economic record.

So forceful was Nick Clegg's defence of the government at today's PMQs that, by the end of the session, his voice had been reduced to an IDS-like croak. Deputising for David Cameron, who doesn't return from the Gulf until later today, Clegg launched attack after attack on Labour. Asked by Harriet Harman, who stood in for Ed Miliband, why the Lib Dems had broken their election pledge to increase police numbers, Clegg thundered, "at least they can trust this side of the House with the economy!" When Harman replied that the public couldn't trust his party on tuition fees, on childcare or on the police, Clegg, his voice rising with anger, exclaimed, "What about her promise of no more boom and bust? What happened to that one?" He added that while the government had reduced the deficit by a quarter and reformed welfare, Labour had merely "gone on a few marches", "denied any responsibility" for the deficit, and failed to fill in its "blank sheet of paper". Sat next to Clegg on the frontbench, George Osborne smiled with pleasure at the Deputy PM's performance. Given the ferocity of his attacks on Labour, it's becoming ever harder to see how Clegg could work with Miliband in the event of a hung parliament.

Earlier in the session, Harman had questioned Clegg on the Leveson inquiry in an attempt to drive a wedge between him and Cameron. While Clegg emphasised his commitment to "a free, raucous, independent press", he added that "business as usual" was not acceptable. Provided that Leveson's recommendations were "workable and proportionate", Clegg said he would support them, a stance that leaves the door open to some form of statutory regulation.

A notable moment came when Tory MP Mark Reckless mischievously asked the Deputy PM whether he would be involved in choosing Britain's next EU commissioner (it is often suggested that Clegg could resign as Lib Dem leader to take up the post when it falls vacant in 2013), to which Clegg, refusing to play dumb, replied: "I won’t be a candidate, however much he may hope otherwise". It was, as far as I can recall, the first time that he had explicitly ruled himself out of the running.

Both Clegg and Harman also took the opportunity to congratulate Barack Obama on his re-election. After Clegg had done so, to cheers from Labour MPs, he presciently observed, "I suspect that's the only point I will be cheered by the benches opposite." Harman offered a spirited endorsement of Obama, noting that the US President had pledged to "create more jobs", "provide healthcare for all" and tackle "the scourge of inequality". Her message, in short, was "just like Labour!"

Nick Clegg leaves number 10 Downing Street for Parliament earlier today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.