If there is a non-aggression pact between the banks and the government, someone forgot to tell Nick Clegg. In an interview with BBC Radio Sheffield earlier today, the Lib Dem leader said of the denizens of the Square Mile, “I want to wring the neck of these wretched people.” It’s a rather graphic example of his pledge to use a “different language” from David Cameron and an obvious sop to his party’s grass roots.
But the remarks also leave him dangerously exposed. Clegg’s insistence that he wants to “wring” the bankers’ necks invites an obvious response: why haven’t you, then? The failure of Project Merlin to take effective action on bonuses and lending levels means that he sounds like an impotent opposition politician.
Should the coalition fail to prevent another bumper round of bonuses in 2012 (as it undoubtedly will), Clegg’s words will be played back to him by every hostile journalist and Labour MP in the land. Like his pledge to vote against higher tuition fees and his description of the Alternative Vote as a “miserable little compromise”, this is one line that Clegg’s political opponents will never tire of recycling.
His comments also remind us of the divisions between the Lib Dems and the Tories on the banks. The Deputy PM has aligned himself with Vince Cable, who recently condemned large bonuses as “offensive” and said the banks needed “fundamental surgery”. Once the Vickers commission on banking reports to George Osborne, the coalition will need to decide whether to split retail and investment banking.
Cable and Clegg are convinced of the need for reform, but many Tories remain sceptical at best. Should the Lib Dems fail to win the argument, Clegg will once again be accused of talking tough but acting weak.