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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.

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

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.