Clegg was for cuts to the NHS and aid before he was against them

The Liberal Democrat leader has conveniently forgotten his opposition to ring-fencing in 2010.

Unlike Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg emerged largely unscathed from his appearance on The World At Onebut a notable moment came when he was asked about the forthcoming Spending Review, submissions for which ended today.

Vince Cable recently criticised the coalition's decision to ring-fence spending on the NHS, schools and international development, warning that it had led to "a very unbalanced approach to public spending". He suggested that cuts should be considered in all of these areas after 2015 in order to reduce pressure on "the army, police, local government and skills". 

But Clegg made it clear that he didn't share the Business Secretary's scepticism of ring-fencing. He said:

If you are Vince Cable and you're in a department that doesn't have that ring-fence, and Philip Hammond and others have made it quite clear directly that they're marshalling their arguments about why their department needs to be shielded from savings and others should bear the...that's the nature of this sort of Whitehall argy bargy that you get at this stage. 

Having said that, I fundamentally, I don't think Vince was saying this, but I am absolutely convinced that at a difficult time like this, protecting our NHS spending, protecting spending on schools and honouring our international obligations to developing countries around the world was a big decision, was a controversial decision but I think was the right one to take. 

In response, it's worth noting that that the Deputy PM took a very different line during the 2010 election when he declared:

We’re not entering into this dutch auction about ring-fencing. Good outcomes aren’t determined by drawing a redline around government departmental budgets.

Unlike the Conservatives, who pledged to protect spending on the NHS and international development, the Lib Dems argued that no department should be spared from austerity, with Cable telling the party's 2010 spring conference: "There can be no ring-fencing if we are serious about getting the public finances back on track". As party leader, Clegg supported this approach.

Once installed as Deputy Prime Minister, it appears that he had a change of heart. But if so, he should at least have the decency to admit as much. 

Nick Clegg gestures as he takes questions from journalists after making a speech on immigration on March 22, 2013 in London. 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.