Nick Clegg with Ed Miliband at a ceremony at Buckingham Palace to mark the Duke of Edinburgh's 90th birthday on June 30, 2011. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Would Clegg force Labour to back tougher cuts?

The Deputy PM's warning that he would "absolutely insist" that a new coalition would not "break the bank" suggests that he may push Labour to back an Osborne-style deficit plan.

Given how much Nick Clegg has staked on the Lib Dems remaining in government after the next election, and Labour's stubborn poll lead, it is unsurprising to find him warming to the prospect of a coalition with Ed Miliband's party. He tells a Radio 4 documentary to be broadcast tonight: "I think they've [Labour] changed. I think there's nothing like the prospect of reality in an election to get politicians to think again and the Labour Party, which is a party unused to sharing power with others is realising that it might have to."

By contrast, he says of the Tories: "I think the Conservative Party has changed quite dramatically since we entered into coalition with them. They've become much more ideological, they've returned much more to a lot of their familiar theme tunes. I think it would be best for everybody if the Conservative Party were to rediscover a talent for actually talking to mainstream voters about mainstream concerns."

It seems Ed Balls's recent overtures in the New Statesman have not gone to waste. 

Clegg does, however, qualify his remarks by warning that "if there were a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, we the Liberal Democrats would absolutely insist that government would not break the bank."

The Deputy PM's choice of words ("break the bank") will likely perpetuate the false belief that the last government "bankrupted" Britain, but more significant is what they imply about the future. In his recent speech to the Fabian Society, Balls committed a Labour government to balancing the current budget and to reducing the national debt as a share of GDP by the end of the next parliament. While he left open the option of borrowing to invest, his chosen fiscal rules make large public spending cuts unavoidable. 

For Clegg, however, this may not be enough. In his speech on the economy at Mansion House last week, he backed George Osborne's more aggressive post-2015 deficit reduction plan and vowed to pursue it if the Lib Dems were in government after the next election. "In the autumn statement we set out a plan to get debt falling as a proportion of GDP by 2016-17 and to get the current structural deficit in balance a year later. That is the right timescale and the one to which the Liberal Democrats remain absolutely committed. If I am in government again, this is the plan I want us to stick to."

Osborne's plan differs from Balls's in three important respects: it is based on a commitment to reduce the national debt by 2016-17 (rather than by the end of the parliament), and to achieve an absolute budget surplus by 2020 (rather than merely a current surplus), and, therefore, would not allow the government to borrow to invest in infrastructure. 

But while Clegg has made it clear that he favours Osborne's timetable, others in his party, most notably Vince Cable, are fighting for an alternative approach. In his own recent address on the economy, the Business Secretary said: "There are different ways of finishing the job … not all require the pace and scale of cuts set out by the chancellor. And they could allow public spending to stabilise or grow in the next parliament, whilst still getting the debt burden down." Based on that, it seems that Cable would prefer to adopt the approach taken by Balls, leaving room to borrow to invest depending on the state of the economy, rather than Osborne's ideological fixation with a budget surplus. 

The key question, in the event of another hung parliament, will be how far Clegg is prepared to go to bind Labour to a plan that he deems fiscally responsible. Given the emphasis he has put on the issue ("we the Liberal Democrats would absolutely insist that government would not break the bank"), it's possible that he would veto any agreeement that did not include Osborne-style cuts.

Alternatively, given Labour's superior bargaining power, it's possible, or even likely, that Miliband and Balls would get their way. In a reverse of 2010, when he signed up to early spending cuts, despite having consistently opposed them throughout the election campaign ("merrily slashing now is an act of economic masochism," he warned, adding that "If anyone had to rely on our support, and we were involved in government, of course we would say no."), he could move from backing Conservative cuts to backing a more balanced plan. 

Whatever happens, now Clegg has named his terms, the debate over post-2015 cuts will move up a gear. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.