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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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