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.