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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser