Why did the Lib Dems really U-turn on spending cuts in 2010?

Andrew Adonis's 5 Days in May offers new evidence of the party's disastrous economic misjudgement.

The Lib Dems have received no shortage of criticism for their failure to keep their tuition fees pledge (prompting that infamous apology from Nick Clegg) but there's been surprisingly little scrutiny of a far more significant U-turn, that over spending cuts. 

Although it's now hard to recall, the party ran on an anti-austerity platform at the general election, opposing any in-year spending cuts. In March, for instance, Clegg declared that "merrily slashing now is an act of economic masochism", adding that he would not compromise on this point in any coalition negotiations. "If anyone had to rely on our support, and we were involved in government, of course we would say no." On 1 May, less than a week before polling day, he reaffirmed his position: "My eight-year-old ought to be able to work this out -- you shouldn't start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing. If you do that you create more joblessness, you create heavier costs on the state, the deficit goes up even further and the pain with dealing with it is even greater. So it is completely irrational."

Yet once the results were in and parliament was "hung", the Lib Dems made no attempt to keep their pledge to oppose immediate cuts, abandoning it even before they entered coalition negotiations with the Tories. Nor was this merely a pre-emptive attempt to appease Cameron and Osborne in the hope of concessions elsewhere. As Andrew Adonis's excellent 5 Days In May (which I have reviewed for this week's NS) reveals, the Lib Dems insisted in their talks with Labour that "there could and should be immediate in-year spending cuts for 2010/11 and 'further and faster' spending cuts than Labour's plans thereafter."

When challenged a month later to explain his Damascene conversion to austerity, Clegg cited "the complete belly-up implosion in Greece" and "a long conversation a day or two after the government was formed" with Mervyn King. The claim that the Greek crisis proved the need for cuts was odd coming from a man who had earlier warned that premature austerity would lead to "Greek-style unrest" and, as for King, Chuka Umunna has previously noted on The Staggers that the Bank of England governor told him during a Treasury select committee hearing that "he had given Clegg no new information on the debt situation during their chat". (Clegg, never a stickler for consistency, later confessed that he had changed his mind before the election.) 

But Adonis's invaluable account has revealed a new justification. He writes that during the talks between the two parties, Chris Huhne argued that "immediate cuts were now possible without jeopardising the recovery because the depreciation of sterling in recent weeks 'has provided a large, real, extra stimulus to the economy.'" This claim was repeated in a later meeting by David Laws, who argued that "the fall in the value of sterling made immediate cuts possible without an impact on the recovery." 

This, to put it mildly, is not a judgement that has aged well. After the coalition entered power and imposed £6bn of immediate spending cuts, including to infrastructure programmes such as Building Schools for the Future, the recovery that had begun under Labour ended and Britain fell into a double-dip recession. Those, like Ed Balls and Martin Wolf, who warned that tightening fiscal policy was the last thing a government should do during a slump were entirely right, and those, like Huhne and Laws, who argued that the economy was robust enough to bear early austerity were entirely wrong. As the UK endures the slowest recovery for more than 100 years, the Lib Dems do not to deserve to avoid their share of responsibility for this dismal outcome. 

Chris Huhne, Danny Alexander and David Laws leave the Cabinet Office following talks with the Conservatives on 9 May 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

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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