Clegg shows how the coalition will attack Labour in 2013

The coalition will challenge Labour to say which cuts it would keep and which it would reject, but it shouldn't expect any answers.

Nick Clegg's article in today's Times (£) offers a preview of an attack the coalition will use repeatedly against Labour in 2013: what would you do? In reference to Labour's opposition to the coalition's plan to increase benefits by just 1 per cent for the next three years, Clegg writes: "Labour must show how they’d pay for it. Would they cut hospital budgets? Schools? Defence?" He also demands that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband say which of the coalition's cuts "they would keep, which they would lose and where they would find the money instead."

But the Deputy PM shouldn't expect answers any time soon. In an end-of-year interview with the Times, Ed Balls signalled that Labour would hold back its key tax and spending commitments until 2015. "Until we know the state of the economy, the state of the public finances and how bad things have turned out, it’s very hard for us to know what we can possibly say."

Balls's argument is a reasonable one. The Office for Budget Responsibility originally expected the economy to grow by 5.7 per cent between the first quarter of 2010 and the second quarter of 2012. It actually grew by 0.9 per cent. As a result, the coalition is now forecast to borrow £212bn more than planned in June 2010. In view of this record, it would be unwise for Labour to make any hard and fast commitments until the latest moment possible. Balls has gone as far as banning shadow cabinet ministers from saying which cuts they would keep for fear of creating the impression that Labour will be able to reverse all of the others.

But with a Spending Review due to be held later this year, the coalition will begin to challenge Labour to say whether it would match its post-election spending plans, as it did with the Conservatives' in 1997. With little fanfare, the Liberal Democrats have accepted George Osborne's fiscal envelope (which now extends to 2018), if not all of his proposed cuts. For instance, while Clegg successfully rejected Osborne's bid to secure £10bn of additional welfare cuts, limiting the Chancellor to £3.8bn, he did not question the assumption that £10bn of further austerity was necessary, merely that all the savings needed to come from welfare. Whether or not Labour should adopt the same approach is the biggest decision Balls and Miliband will make before the election. A pledge to match the Tories' spending limits would insulate Labour from the charge that it is planning a tax or borrowing "bombshell" but it would enrage the left and the trade unions. I'll have more on this in my column in tomorrow's magazine.

Nick Clegg delivers a speech to the think-tank Centre Forum at The Commonwealth Club on December 17, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.