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.
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.