Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Beneath the surface, tensions are growing in the Lib Dems

Everything right now is analysed through the prism of "what it means about the leadership".

The daffodils are blooming, the sun is shining and the floods are receding – which can only mean one thing. It’s Lib Dem Spring Conference. This may come to a surprise to many, as unlike in previous years, where the rows have been heavily trailed and keenly anticipated, this time all seems sweetness and light. Sure, there’ll be debates and differences of opinion – but no one’s going to be resigning over motions on the best way to fight food poverty. And with the party set to take positive positions supporting immigration and Europe, why, it feels just like old times.

After some difficult conference moments for the leadership in recent times – for example, it’s exactly a year ago since Jo Shaw quit the party on stage over the Secret Courts debacle - the party looks to be at peace with itself.

Sadly, I fear this is not the case. Scratch the surface, and you find a party that’s tense, nervous about the future, especially worried about the European elections, and constantly looking out for trouble. Witness the reaction to Thomas Byrne's article last week (which named Alistair Carmichael as a potential leader) and especially a quote from someone in the party attacking the left. Over on Lib Dem Voice, that got the hairdryer treatment.

"Apparently, a member of party staff has been mean about Tim and referred to those many party activists who have a lot of time for him as 'sandal wearers.' I can’t honestly think of anyone actually working on proper election campaigns who would ever say such an insulting or dismissive thing. They know that they need every activist motivated and out there, telling the Liberal Democrat story, if we are going to have a hope in hell of achieving our goals this year and next. They would never insult members of the party who, by and large, have kept on working patiently on the ground"

Indeed, almost everything right now is analysed through the prism of "what it means about the leadership". Witness the announcement of the negotiating team for potential future coalition talks. Immediately it has been examined for every conceivable signal. It’s a sign of strength that Nick has appointed a team without reference to the wider party. Or else it’s a sign of weakness that Nick has not been brave enough to submit his choices for debate amongst the party at large. And why is the chosen line-up dominated by the left? Or indeed the right? And why now? Is it a distraction technique – get everyone in the party thinking about the general election to stop them thinking about the European elections? The debate seems endless.

The party is going to look confident, assured, positive and passionate on stage this week. But increasingly the debate behind the scenes that will dominate the bar conversation is around one question: after this May’s elections - what happens next?

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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