Clegg hits back at the Tories: I never agreed to new childcare ratios

The Deputy PM says it is "flatly wrong" to say he approved the changes and that the coalition only agreed to a consultation.

It is less the fact of Nick Clegg's decision to veto looser childcare ratios and more the manner of it that has enraged the Conservatives. The Tories are briefing that Clegg signed off on the changes back in January only to reverse his position in order to curry favour with his party. As in the case of the NHS reorganisation and the boundary changes, this was another Lib Dem U-turn. 

But on his weekly LBC phone-in show, Call Clegg, the Deputy PM said it was "flatly wrong" to claim that he had ever approved the changes. "What we agreed at the time was that we would consult on these proposals," he said. 

"If you have an idea, which is controversial, listen to what the people involved say and then make a decision on it. What's the point of making policy if we don't listen to people it will affect?"

Since the consultation found that most parents' groups thought "this was a bad idea" and that there was "no real evidence" that this would cut childcare costs, Clegg argued that his response was the only appropriate one. 

It is one thing for the Tories and the Lib Dems to disagree over policy, as they do in the case of Europe, a mansion tax and the snooper's charter, but that they are now at odds over process, too, shows how dysfunctional the coalition has become. 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg visit Wandsworth Day Nursery on 19 March 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.