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29 July 2010

Nick Clegg’s shameful U-turn on cuts

The truth continues to ooze out.

By Mehdi Hasan

Can you guess who said this?

Look, the decision on how we govern this country and how people vote shouldn’t be driven by fear of what the markets might do. Let’s say there was a Conservative government. Let’s say a Conservative government announced, in that sort of macho way: “We’re gonna slash public spending by a third, we’ll slash this, we’ll slash this, we’ll do it tomorrow. We have to take early, tough action.”

Just imagine the reaction of my constituents in south-west Sheffield. I represent a constituency that has more people working in public services as a proportion of the workforce than any other constituency in the country. Lots of people working in universities, the hospitals and so on.

They have no Conservative councillors. They have no Conservative MPs. There are no Conservative MPs or Conservative councillors as far as the eye can see in South Yorkshire. People like that are going to say: “Who are these people telling us that they are are going to suddenly take our jobs away? What mandate do they have? I didn’t vote for them. No one around here voted for them.”

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I think if we want to go the direction of Greece, where you get real social and industrial unrest, that’s the guaranteed way of doing it.

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It was, of course, our beloved Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Sheffield Hallam, speaking at an event organised by the Yorkshire Post on 19 March. (You can watch the video of his remarks here.)

So what happened? Why did he drop his opposition to the Tories’ “macho” cuts? And when did he stop worrying about the “reaction” of his constituents in Sheffield?

First, Clegg told the Observer‘s Andrew Rawnsley on 6 June that a conversation with the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in the wake of the debt crisis in Greece, helped change his mind:

He [King] couldn’t have been more emphatic. He said: “If you don’t do this, then because of the deterioration of market conditions, it will be even more painful to do it later.”

But, as the Guardian reports, at yesterday’s Treasury select committee hearing, under questioning from Labour’s Chuka Umunna, King revealed that he had said nothing to Clegg during a phone call, on 15 May, that he had not already said in public, most notably at a press conference three days earlier:

I said nothing that was not already in the public domain. In the telephone conversation, I basically repeated what I had said at the press conference . . .

There was nothing I said in that conversation that was different from what I had said in public. When I am needed to give advice, I try to make sure the advice I give is full square in private and in public.

But just as Clegg’s “Mervyn made me do it” excuse begins to fall apart — and, remember, Clegg spoke to King after he had already signed up to the coalition agreement with its “accelerated” deficit reduction programme — along comes Nick Robinson with his BBC2 documentary Five Days that Changed Britain. Asked by Robinson if he had changed his mind about cuts during the five days of negotiations, Clegg says:

I changed my mind earlier than that . . . Firstly remember between March and the actual general election . . . a financial earthquake occurred on our European doorstep.

Hmm. Yet see Clegg’s comments (above) in Yorkshire. Does he sound like a man who is having second thoughts about the Lib Dems’ opposition to “early” cuts? Does he give any indication to the audience that he plans to junk the Lib Dems’ position on the timing of so-called fiscal consolidation? And did he, at any stage during the election campaign, a month later, even hint that he was going to perform such a sharp U-turn on the biggest election and economic issue of all?

As Chuka Umunna puts it:

If Nick Clegg changed his mind on such an important issue during the election campaign, why did he choose not to share this epiphany with the electorate?

The Liberal Democrats fought the election campaign vehemently opposing the Conservatives’ economic policies, and the public deserves a full explanation of when and why Mr Clegg reversed his views on the economy.

Will we get one? No.


On a side note, the more revelations that emerge about those five days of coalition negotiations, the more I feel like reaching for the late Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain. I mean, should the governor of the Bank of England really be intervening, directly or indirectly, in such important political decisions? Should the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell (or “God”, as he is nicknamed by colleagues, according to Nick Robinson), have been advising Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiators in their first meeting with the Cabinet Ooffice “that “the more comprehensive the agreement” between the two parties, the more it would reassure the markets”?