David Laws has long distinguished himself as one of the most fervent Lib Dem supporters of spending cuts. In 2012, he called for the state to be reduced to 35 per cent of GDP – the figure now projected to result from George Osborne’s post-election plans (and famously identified by the OBR as the lowest level since the 1930s). All areas bar health, education and pensions, Laws argued, should face severe austerity until Leviathan had been tamed.
But today’s Sunday Times finds the schools minister in rather different voice. Laws, who worked alongside Osborne as Chief Secretary to the Treasury after the 2010 election (until his expenses-related resignation), describes the Chancellor’s plan as “a very extreme and very right-wing suicide note because all those people who care about the education service, about the police, about the armed forces . . . will see that the plans they have put forward are hugely damaging and dangerous.”
Having declared in 2012 that “We are going to have to see a shrinking of the state share of the economy until it is back into kilter with the amount of tax people are prepared to be pay”, he now argues the precise reverse: “It is easy to talk about balancing the books by cutting spending and not raising people’s taxes and of course that sounds popular. But when you look at what the consequences are for the armed forces, police and education you realise it is a very extreme, right-wing strategy”.
What explains these ideological somersaults? The answer is simple: the election. Of the Lib Dems’ 56 seats, the Conservatives are in second place in 37 (including Laws’s Yeovil constituency). To hold on to these, the party needs to focus on winning tactical votes from left-leaning Labour and Green supporters (as it has done in the past). By talking up the dangers of a future Tory government, it hopes to persuade progressive voters that the safest option is to vote Lib Dem.
Whether many will be receptive to this message after five years of coalition austerity is doubtful. Rather than rising, the Lib Dems’ poll ratings have fallen since they embarked on “aggressive differentiation” from their coalition partners. But that Laws has now embraced this approach shows the extent to which the party is convinced that trashing the Tories is its only hope. The irony, of course, as I wrote recently, is that senior Lib Dems (Laws among them) would far rather form a second coalition with the Conservatives than share power with Labour. But don’t expect to hear much about that before 7 May 2015.