UK Politics

Nick Clegg's war of words with coalition partners

This coalition game is all still new in modern Britain, but more than a few were taken aback by the ferocity of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg's attacks on his Conservative coalition partners this week.

Here's a taster of what he had to say at Monday's press conference about Conservative proposals to make a further £12bn of welfare cuts:

"There is a very interesting debate emerging... driven by two very clear ideological impulses, one is to remorselessly cut back the state and secondly, and I think they're making a monumental mistake in doing so, but they've said that the only section of society who will bear the burden of further fiscal consolidation will be the working age poor, those dependent on welfare."

"I remain perplexed that the Conservatives still refuse to countenance any change in the tax system to ask people occupying very large value properties to make a small additional contribution to this effort - you have to spread the burden as fairly as possible and not only ask the working age poor dependent on welfare to burden the load."

"There is not a serious economist around who believes cuts to welfare alone... lopsided approach... The Conservative Party, it seems to me, is now out on an ideological limb, almost unique in developed economies in saying 'we are not going to ask people of very great wealth, of very high incomes to make any additional contributions to the tax system, we are going to ask people with narrower shoulder to make sacrifices to finish the job'."

"It's worth stressing what an extreme position they are taking saying that all the shortfall should come from welfare cuts."

Image copyright AFP

It started all so well. They seemed the perfect pair. David Cameron and Nick Clegg were likened to a young married couple when they launched the coalition with a press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden.

But both are now preparing for their split at the next election in 16 months, with Nick Clegg's comments this week marking a step up in the policy of "differentiation" (making clear in voters' minds how Lib Dems differ from Tories).

Having said that, Clegg avoided any personal attacks on his prime ministerial chum, although he did not pull his punches as he attacked Conservatives over a range of issues.

Here's a taster of what Nick Clegg said at the same press conference about general values/principles:

"The Liberal Democrats are the only party that can finish the job (of cutting the deficit) and, unlike the Conservatives, finish it fairly."

"I think it is simply not serious politics for the Conservative Party to say we are so reluctant to ask the wealthiest to make even a smidgeon of an extra contribution we are going to ask all future sacrifices to come from the working age poor who depend on welfare. That is unrealistic, and not only is it unrealistic, I think it is unfair and I think it reveals something about their motives that I don't agree with.

"The only way you can ensure that the Conservatives do not pander to their worse instincts is by having Liberal Democrats around the cabinet table. I think coalition has proved its worth."

Image copyright Getty Images

At least on Europe the Liberal Democrats have always been openly at odds with David Cameron's party.

Here's what Nick Clegg said during the preamble to Monday's press conference about what he called a Lib Dem priority:

"If securing a sustainable economic recovery is our priority, the worst way of doing that is to start threatening to pull out of the European Union as UKIP want to, or flirting with exit from the European Union as the Conservatives want to, or failing to even make the case for our membership of the European Union as Labour are doing. It would be madness, an act of economic suicide for us to pull the rug out from under our membership of the European Union."

Nick Clegg did make clear that he was proud of the coalition's record in tackling its central mission of sorting out the nation's finances. But there's a clear effort under way to get the credit for certain policies (and blaming their partners for others):

For instance, on tax priorities and the rise in the starting level of tax to £10,000:

"The Conservatives are a bit a chameleon party when it comes to tax priorities. At the beginning of this parliament their priority was tax cuts for dead millionaires. Then it was the upper rate of tax for higher earners, then it was marriage tax breaks. Now we hear this weekend sudden enthusiasm for the Liberal Democrat policy of taking people out of income tax - low earners."

"If the Conservatives were prepared to give up spending huge amounts of money on their own tax pet projects whether it's the marriage tax break, what I call the unmarried couples tax penalty, or the tax incentives encouraging people to give up employment rights in return for shares…"

"We had one idea, the mansion tax. We worked it up in government, the Treasury worked it up. We had a very simple way of doing it which is basically introducing new council tax bands. It was stopped by the Conservatives for no reason other than they did not want to offend some of their very high value backers. Now that is not a sufficiently good reason basis on which you decide tax and spending policies, you've got to try and do it as objectively as possible."

Image copyright Home Office

The two parties are also well know to have had differences on immigration.

Nick Clegg was withering about the Home Office's record when asked at Monday's event about the subject.

"On exit checks, I've made it very clear to Theresa May and to the Home Office that I am both impatient and fairly displeased that given the fact I personally insisted that the reinstatement of exit checks was in the coalition agreement that we are now in the last full year of this parliament and they still haven't happened. And so I very much hope that in the latter stages of this parliament - I've asked the Home Office to go away and come up with a credible plan for restoring exit checks - that we can make real progress. Better late than never, but I frankly wish the Home Office had done what I asked them four years ago which was to get on with it."

The only direct dig at David Cameron came when asked about TV debates:

"The only major party leader who needs to sign on a dotted line is David Cameron and the Conservatives and I hope they won't use their anxieties about UKIP and Nigel Farage as an excuse not to give the British people the right to see the leaders debates take place again next time."

The message Nick Clegg wants to get across was clear from the backdrop to Monday's press conference at which he delivered all the quotes in this article.

The last question he was asked was whether, given that he had questioned the Conservatives' motives, extremism and monumental mistakes, he had been conned by them in 2010?

"I did not give George Osborne's speech, I am not a Conservative. They have taken the decision to say to the British people 16 months before the general election we are only going to ask the working age poor to make sacrifices from here on in. I am reacting to that."

"I think clearly during the course of this coalition we have delivered things…. The Conservatives have now decided to take a completely different stance for the future and they are perfectly entitled to do so. I am equally entitled..."

To be fair to the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg did make references to Labour, saying they couldn't be trusted with the economy, and it wasn't all negative about his coalition partners:

"Any government will have to try and bring debt down as a proportion of GDP otherwise you'll be spending billions of pounds on debt interest rather than on schools and hospitals - so this is an on-going effort and I strongly agree with George Osborne when he says the job is not yet finished."

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Nick Clegg, left, with David Cameron, right Image copyright PA

So the question being asked now by many is whether the coalition can really survive until the election in May 2015 when the partners are being so openly rude about each other.

This was the week, let's not forget, when Nick Clegg was likened to a condom by the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Here are two commentators' views on the coalition's future:

In the Financial Times, George Parker writes: "Tory frustration with Mr Clegg is mounting... the prospect of the coalition partners involved in vitriolic squabbles poses risks for Mr Clegg who regards the establishment of a stable and effective coalition as a strategic breakthrough for the Lib Dems.

"Some will question whether the government can still transact business - including a Queen's Speech, two more Budgets and an Autumn Statement - while its principal players are publicly at loggerheads.... but civil servants believe an instinct for political survival will force Lib Dems and Tories to see out the coalition in an orderly fashion."

In the Daily Mail Stephen Glover writes: "In recent weeks a new asperity, even nastiness, has crept into Lib Dem criticism of their Tory partners... can government proceed when its two constituent parts are increasingly at war? In a technical sense it probably can. I expect the coalition to survive until the election in May 2015. But never before in modern times has a government been so openly riven with dispute.

"Hitherto the approach of the Tory high command has been to absorb Lib Dem knocks and, other than perhaps a mild joke at Vince Cable's expense, not retaliate... I'm not urging blind retaliation. It's just that when your so-called partners twist what you think and try to foul up your message, it's time to act... the one thing that will not take place is a mass exodus from the coalition by the Lib Dems.

"They like power and its trappings too much and want to stick around until the end of the Parliament in order to claim their share of credit for the economic recovery."

Here is a selection of your views on the future of the coalition:

I couldn't care less about Nick Clegg's attacks on the Conservatives, these are all arguments to be made inside government, not tales to be told to us. As a politician his job is to influence the decisions being made for the better. Once again an example of politicians trying to win votes rather than working for the good of the country.Jo, Bristol

I hope the coalition doesn't last till 2015. Then we can get rid of this pariah who is only interested in stabbing his coalition partners in the back. Both Clegg and Cable should be given their marching orders ASAP. They have showed continuously that they are unfit to serve in government. Clegg is too much of an EU lover to be trusted and Cable? Past sell-by date by a long time. I can't believe I'm saying this but I almost pity Labour if they go in partnership with these parasites.George, Boxgrove

I am perhaps in a minority, but I applaud the coalition for returning British politics to the one-nation middle ground. The Liberals have worked well with moderate Tories and it seems to have benefited the majority. I am deeply disappointed that political posturing before the election is producing such negative rhetoric. My message to the coalition partners is simple: grow up and stop playing to the tabloid gallery.S Thomas, Wrexham

I hope the present government will not go round boasting that it has begun to solve the economic problems that have besieged us. It is worth noting that the problems were not 'ours' - it was a worldwide experience. But it has not been the government that have borne the brunt of this. It is ordinary Joe and his family who have made sacrifices, gone without, cut here and there, had stay-at-home holidays and have had to make the huge sacrifices.Trevor, Peterborough

It will survive, if only because an election before May 2015 would probably lead to a Labour government, Clegg would probably like another term around the Cabinet table unless he knows for sure that he has a top job lined up in Brussels already. Clegg is like the back half the Pantomime horse, it makes a lot of noise but is malodorous, Cameron is at least at the front with his eyes open trying to go in a straight line whilst getting frequent bum steers from the rear.Tony, Keighley

I think the coalition will survive as its in both parties interests that it does, Further, Nick Clegg is right to air his opinions on Tory policy and I hope we will have another coalition after the next general election, ideally with Labour, as I feel the Lib Dems in coalition are the middle ground leveller sorely needed in UK politics as the Tories are influenced far too much by the Neo Cons of the USA Republican Party.James, Bournemouth

It's time for change now and Nick Clegg needs to call it a day with the Tories. How they sleep at night I don't know. Melvyn, Doncaster

The more I read about politics the more I believe the nasty parties are those on the left. If you don't agree with them, you get called names, racist, selfish, uncaring etc. I think the coalition should survive, it was agreed, disagreements happen in all relationships, but the Lib Dems are sniping, the Tories aren't, what does that tell us?Neil, Guildford

I do not believe it should survive, both parties are now posturing and preparing themselves for the next election, it does not bode well for the country, politics is so self serving. I did not ever think it would survive this long and let's be honest the Lib Dems got such a small percentage of the national vote that the people overall did not want them anywhere near where they are now.Anthony, Cleethorpes

The Lib Dems have only been useful on reducing the deficit. In all other areas they have been allowed to punch way above their weight. Their worst example was when they failed to support the Boundary Reviews after having it in their manifesto.Roger, Tunbridge Wells

Hello. I think of the Lib Dems more or less what my father used to say about the [then] Liberal Party when I was growing up (in the '60s). "Same as the Conservatives but with a guilty conscience" is what stuck in my mind.William, Richmond