Clegg leaves the door open to further welfare cuts

At his monthly press conference, the Deputy PM refuses to rule out reducing the benefit cap or limiting child benefit to two children for out-of-work families.

George Osborne has made it clear that he plans to introduce "billions" more in welfare cuts if the Tories win the next election, including a possible reduction in the £26,000 household benefit cap and new limits on child benefit, but where does Nick Clegg stand? At the Deputy PM's final monthly press conference of the year, I asked him whether he was prepared to consider a reduction in the benefit cap in the next parliament. He told me:

It’s not something that I’m advocating at the moment because we’ve only just set this new level and it’s £26,000, which is equivalent to earning £35,000 before tax...I think we need to keep that approach, look and see how it works, see what the effects are, but not rush to start changing the goalposts before the policy has properly settled down.

The key words here are "at the moment". While Clegg again declared that he believed the priority should be to remove universal pensioner benefits from the well-off ("you start from the top and you work down"), he was careful not rule out a cut in the level of the cap. Similarly, on the Conservative proposal to limit child benefit to the first two children for out-of-work families, while Clegg said there was "something a bit arbitrary" about "a government saying how many children the state will or will not help support", he refused to oppose the idea in principle. He said:

Is my priority returning to child benefit, as the first port of call, no it's not. But I’m not going to start drawing great circles around this policy or that policy. I want to look at it in the round.

Aware that he will be pushed to support these policies should he enter coalition negotiations with the Conservatives after the next election, Clegg is ruling nothing out. If, as seems likely, David Cameron avoids repeating his 2010 pledge to protect pensioner benefits (Clegg said he had "given up" on trying to persuade the Tories in this parliament), the two parties would likely reach an agreement on further cuts to working age welfare.

Elsewhere during the Q&A, Clegg was asked whether he had his own "little black book" of Lib Dem policies blocked by the Tories and cited housing, border checks and banking reform as areas where they had prevented progress. He said:

I have a fairly thick volume of things that I’d love to do if I was prime minister, which is not of course possible within a coalition with the Conservatives.

Housing today is a good example, I’ve wanted to see community land auctions, which I think would be a great way to get more land leased, to get more houses built on them; that’s something the Conservatives are very reluctant to endorse. I’ve been a long-standing advocate of a planned approach to garden cities, particularly in that part of the country between Oxford and Cambridge, where lots of people want to live, where we don’t have enough places for people to live. Again, the Conservatives have stopped that. I think we would have seen more housing on a quicker scale if we’d been on our own in government.

I alluded earlier to the fact that I find it very frustrating that despite the coalition commitment, which I wrote into the coalition agreement, on reintroducing exit checks at our borders, that seems to have been not acted upon as quickly as it should have been. I think we probably would, frankly, have acted a bit faster on some of the structural problems in the banking system. I’m sure we can compare endless lists.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Buhler Sortex factory on October 8, 2013 in east London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit