By Harry Phibbs
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Nick Clegg didn't have anything terribly interesting or new to say in his speech this afternoon but the tone was more assertive. Usually the Liberal Democrat politicians avoid being messianic. They like to project a let's be reasonable, split the difference, would you like a cup of tea message.
The pitch is to be nice and trying to vary that by assuring the audience that they can also be jolly tough tends to sound contrived and embarrassing.
Here was an unaccustomed effort within the Lib Dems to build up a leadership cult. They were practising power worship. Mr Clegg accommodated the power worshippers. Thus there were a few insidery anecdotes - something about sorting out the furniture when he first became Deputy Prime Minister and also something about meeting Andy Murray.
Then there was plenty of of "back story" - his upbringing, lots about his wife and children and the values they believed in. All the American stuff which is now familiar to our politics too.
Amongst all this Mr Clegg listed policies that the Government had brought in that he wanted to claim credit for he gave a list of policies which he claimed to have stopped:
Sometimes compromise and agreement isn’t possible and you just have to say “no”. Inheritance tax cuts for millionaires - no. Bringing back O’ levels and a two-tier education system - no. Profit-making in schools – no. New childcare ratios – no. Firing workers at will, without any reasons given – no, absolutely not.
Regional pay penalising public sector workers in the north - no. Scrapping housing benefit for young people – no. No to ditching the Human Rights Act. No to weakening the protections in the Equalities Act. No to closing down the debate on Trident. Had they asked us, no to those ‘go home’ poster vans.
No to the boundary changes if you cannot deliver your side of the bargain on House of Lords reform. And if there’s one area where we’ve had to put our foot down more than any other, have a guess. Yep, the environment.
It’s an endless battle; we’ve had to fight tooth and nail; it was the same just this week with the decision to introduce a small levy to help Britain radically cut down on plastic bags.
They wanted to scrap Natural England, hold back green energy. They even wanted geography teachers to stop teaching children about how we can tackle climate change. No, no and no – the Liberal Democrats will keep this Government green.
There is a lots of nonsense in this section, of course. For example the proposal on Inheritance Tax was to cut it for everyone but millionaires - raising the threshold to £1 million. Most people would have been pleased that had taken place. Most people would probably support most of the other measures that the Lib Dems are boasting about stopping. However they are not interested in what most people think - only the 25 per cent who are potential Lib Dem voters.
On free school meals Mr Clegg said:
If you want to know what I really believe in you will find it in these policies. Using the muscle of the state to create a level playing field when it counts most – when boys and girls are still forming their views, their characters, their hopes and their fears.
That’s why I’m delighted to tell you that we are now also going to provide free school meals for all children of infant school age.
From next September we’ll give every child in Reception, and Years 1 and 2 a healthy lunch every day – saving families more than £400 per year, per child.
And, for the Liberal Democrats, this is a first step: my ambition is to provide free school meals for all primary school children. Another reason we want to get into Government again next time round.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, have made it clear that their priority is to help some families over others, with a tax break for married couples. A tax break for some, funded through the taxes of everybody else - that tells you everything you need to know about their values.
But extending free school meals helps some families over others. It helps the rich - who will no longer have to pay for them - over the poor - who were getting them anyway. There might be a case to be made for encouraging a proper hot meal at school rather than a packed lunch. But it is silly to claim the new policy as egalitarian.
Still what comes across from this week is Nick Clegg and, on the whole, the Lib Dems generally like being in power. The modesty has been junked.
There might well be Conservative or Labour MPs who would prefer opposition to a Lib Dem coalition. However for all the stick tehy have taken the Lib Dems will be keen to get another deal if they have a chance.
By Mark Wallace
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Now that both parties are fighting to take credit for the coalition's achievements, rather than seeking to blame each other for its impact, it seems an opportune moment to ask: who is winning the Coalition? Do the Lib Dems or the Conservatives enjoy more success in Government?
Let's tot it up, match by match, across thirteen key policy areas:
With PCCs introduced, an immigration cap in place, the concept of regional immigration limits rejected, spending cuts to the police but crime falling regardless and even the now-famous "Go Home" vans, the Home Office is a round victory for the Conservatives. The Lib Dems will be happy about the scrapping of ID cards, but it's worth remembering that this was Tory policy at the election, too.
Blues 2 - 0 Yellows
Both parties described themselves as localist in the run-up to 2010, but the plan the Government have implemented is almost entirely Eric Pickles'. Spending transparency, guaranteed referenda for council tax increases over 5 per cent and relaxed planning regulations all point to a Conservative win.
Blues 2 - 0 Yellows
It's a little hard to say how the different parties have fared in the Justice department. The failure to fulfil the Tory pledge for automatic jail sentences for carrying a knife illegally and the fact the Human Rights Act still has not been replaced by a British Bill of Rights are certainly points against the Conservatives, but they were respectively scored by Ken Clarke and a Commission set up by the Prime Minister, so count as own goals. Since he took over as Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling has been pushing ahead more productively with cuts to legal aid, reform of the courts system and a new, more accountable prison regime. The Lib Dems have had barely a look-in, but the own goals go on their tally - we can expect a better rematch later in the Parliament.
Blues 3 - 2 Yellows
The Lib Dems had a good sequence of play early on - for a while it looked like they might romp home. They certainly secured the referendum on AV which they had demanded, but then the electorate overwhelmingly rejected the plan. Lords reform briefly came onto the agenda, before being torpedoed by Tory backbench opposition. In revenge, Clegg sank the boundary reform the Conservatives desperately need to iron out structural bias in the election system. Both sides lose out - a no-score draw.
Blues 0 - 0 Yellows
It's fair to say Michael Gove has emerged victorious on almost every measure in Education. The academies scheme has been dramatically extended, Free Schools are springing up and new, more rigorous exams are in place. The flagship Lib Dem policy of the Pupil Premium has been implemented, but their promise to aboilish tuition fees has been entirely reversed.
Blues 5 - 1 Yellows
Both parties supported High Speed 2 in 2010, and despite heavy fire from all sides it remains Government policy. The Lib Dem policy of introducing road pricing has been rejected, and replaced by reductions and freezes in fuel prices, driven by Rob Halfon. Clegg and Cameron both promised that Heathrow would not be expanded, and they've got their way - with Lib Dem support for the policy helping to overwhelm any Tory suggestions it be revoked.
Blues 2 - 1 Yellows
The decision to hold a Strategic Defence Review rather partially removed this department from the realm of pure party politics early on in the parliament. However, the Lib Dems regularly boast that they have managed to delay any decision to replace Trident until at least 2015, while the Conservatives have successfully slimmed down the MoD's size and balanced its budget for the first time in years. A score draw.
Blues 1 - 1 Yellows
Energy and Environment
Chris Huhne, and later Ed Davey, have dominated these policy fields from DECC until Owen Paterson gave DEFRA more Tory bite in the last year. The Green Deal is in place (and splashing money everywhere), wind farms are still going ahead despite the Tories wishing to implement a moratorium and the Green Investment Bank has got the go-ahead. Shale gas has now been given the green light, but only after lengthy delays thanks to Lib Dem opposition.
Blues 1 - Yellows 5
Tax and Spend
Both parties agreed on the need for austerity after the Brown years, but we should note that the Lib Dem manifesto proposed £15 billion of spending cuts, delayed until 2011-12. Austerity has been larger than that, and began immediately. While Clegg and Alexander's presence in the Quad has certainly reduced the fiscal tightening somewhat, Government policy looks closer to Osborne's position than theirs.
On tax, it's a different story. The 50p rate is gone, but it is now 45p rather than the 40p many Tories would have preferred. The income tax threshold is rising to £10,000, following a Lib Dem manifesto pledge - though it's not a policy many Conservatives are uncomfortable about. It's fair to say Osborne's enthusiasm for tax cuts (for example on Inheritance Tax) has been sizeably hindered by his coalition partners.
Goals for each side, but level pegging so far.
Blues 2 - Yellows 2
Like Eric Pickles, Iain Duncan Smith went into the 2010 election with a coherent plan and a deep personal dedication to his brief. As a result, he's got his way on the bulk of his proposals. The two parties have collaborated to protect the Universal Credit scheme from Treasury attempts to axe it or scale it back. It says a lot that the Lib Dems' main impact on the DWP has been to veto IDS' offers to make even more savings from his budget.
Blues 2 - Yellows 1
Business and Banks
Vince Cable has long touted his Department as the heartland of Lib Dem opposition to Conservative leadership of the coalition. He's certainly managed to get the Government to adopt his industrial strategy, and blocked the Beecroft reforms to workplace regulation. But he has also had to accept the abolition of the Regional Development Agencies and the Conservative-driven cuts to red tape. The decider is the Government's decision to accept the Lib Dem policy to break up the banks.
Blues 2 - Yellows 3
To say the Health and Social Care Act proved controversial is an understatement. Various of the policies within it are drawn from the Conservative 2010 manifesto, although Lib Dem opposition forced the Government into a "listening period" and resulted in several changes to the legislation.
Blues 2 - Yellows 1
This always seemed likely to be the sticking point of the Coalition. Clegg has prevented Cameron from offering an earlier referendum, and the Conservatives have been forced to use a Private Member's Bill to pursue their policy post-2015. However, the Lib Dems so far have been too afraid of public opinion to vote against the Wharton Bill, resorting to wrecking attempts in the Committees. The In/Out referendum is on the way, but Yellow blocking tactics have left the Blues open to attack by UKIP.
Blues 1 - Yellows 2
Scores so far
Here are the overall scores from the first half of the Parliamentary season. Of 13 matches, there have been 7 Blue victories, 3 Yellow wins and 3 draws. 25 goals for the Conservatives and 19 for the Liberal Democrats leaves the goal difference at +6 for the Blue team.
The contest is only going to become more hotly contested - as can be seen by Nick Clegg's attempt to take the credit for Rob Halfon's ideas today - so we will continue to watch every match and report back.
By Harry Phibbs
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Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury - like Nick Clegg but unlike Vince Cable - is a supporter of the Government of which he is a member. That came across strongly in his speech to the Lib Dems conference this afternoon:
With every step towards economic recovery we take, the party that caused the mess, the Labour Party, become even less credible. Ed Balls bet the house on a failing economy. He banked on a double dip that never happened. He predicted a triple dip that never came.
And now even his closest colleagues admit he is a busted flush. The Labour Party has opposed every single decision we’ve made. That was until Ed Balls declared that the Labour party would adopt a new found ‘iron discipline’ in public spending.
In fact, so strong is that commitment that the two Eds have managed to limit themselves to a meagre £45 billion of extra spending commitments. To be fair, once you’ve left the next generation with a debt of £828 billion to pay off. Rising at the rate of £3 billion a week, without any plan to deal with it, well what's another £45 billion between friends?
The trouble with Mr Alexander saying the Lib Dems should be able to claim some of the credit for the economic recovery is that Mr Cable and people like Tim Farron also "bet the house on a failing economy."
By Mark Wallace
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Nick Clegg has emerged victorious from his calculated confrontation with the left of the Liberal Democrats over government economic policy. It's a personal victory for him and a political victory for the coalition, ensuring the principle of deficit reduction goes untouched (although the practice will continue to be difficult around the Cabinet table).
By the same token, today's result is a blow to the Lib Dem left and Vince Cable in particular.
Any political party is a coalition of sorts - we Conservatives certainly have plenty of tribes of our own, who disagree about plenty of issues. But Lib Demmery is a more divided creed than most.
Having been formed from a merger of two parties, it has never succeeded in bringing the left and centre any closer together. The rift extends to the social level as well as just the ideological - you don't see many deficit hawks hanging out over beers with the Keynesian wing of the party.
Today's debate and vote in Glasgow was a symptom of that affliction.
By Mark Wallace
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Neither the woolly jumpers and sandals, the bleeding heart greenery nor Nick Clegg's confession that he "cries to music" would sit comfortably at the Den. By the same token, Milwall's famous chant, "No-one likes us, we don't care", would never make it into the songbook at the annual Glee Club held at Lib Dem conference.
The first clause might be acceptable, given that the Coalition's minor party still lag behind UKIP and regularly dip below 10 per cent in the polls. It's the second half that they struggle with.
The crippling problem for the Liberal Democrats is that they do care about their unpopularity - and they care very strongly.
It's a symptom of being the all-things-to-all-men third party for so long. Coherent principles may never have been their burden to carry, but being the "nice" party certainly was. Consciously or not, they enjoyed the warm feeling of being able to promise whatever made people like them without the hangover from actually having to implement anything.
They were Parliament's conscience, or so they thought, without realising that a conscience is only meaningful if you have to use it in practice on difficult decisions.
That's why the last three years have been such an uncomfortable shock for many Liberal Democrats. They decided to live up to their promise that they were a serious party of Government by entering coalition when the country needed stability - which is to their credit. But the party had not fully come to terms with what was actually involved.
David Cameron is absolutely right to plan properly for post-2015 election negotiations, as the Daily Telegraph reports today, either with the Liberal Democrats or with other parties (such as the Democratic Unionists, were the numbers to add up). As the paper kindly acknowledges in an editorial, one of my leitmotifs since the 2010 election is that the Conservatives can't win a majority next time round given the distribution of the vote - a problem that the cut in the number of Commons constituencies proposed by the Government, and so ignobly sunk by the Liberal Democrats, would have addressed. If the Commons is hung in 2015, the Prime Minister would have a responsibility to the country to strive to keep it out of Labour's hands.
This means building strong foundations for any consequent coalition - a necessity which, last time round, was compromised by the rush to office of both parties, and their unpreparedness, plus that of Whitehall, for the dance of negotiation which a hung Parliament brings with it. The Liberal Democrats made a hash of their position on tuition fees. And the Conservative leadership was too quick to dump parts of the programme on which it had just fought the election, such as its commitments on inheritance tax and stamp duty. Furthermore, Tory MPs weren't given the chance to vote formally on the coalition deal. It was presented to them at a single meeting of the 1922, and sold to them on a mistaken prospectus.
By Peter Hoskin
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Blame it on the heat or whatever, but we’re spending a lot of time talking about the shelf-life of the Coalition at the moment. There was my post last Saturday, itself a distillation of articles by Matthew Parris and Simon Heffer, about when the Tories and Lib Dems should split apart. That was followed, on Sunday, by Graham Brady and Bernard Jenkin advocating a split next year. And subsequently both Paul Goodman and Steve Richards have written columns about the prospect of another Coalition after 2015. It’s almost as though we’re less than two years away from an election, and the whole thing has become a pressing concern.
By way of summarising some of the current arguments, I thought I’d produce a quick list of the reasons to think that there will be another Con-Lib Coalition after the next election, and the reasons to think that there won’t be. Of course, as with much political soothsaying, this is based on how things look now. The overriding determinant of whether or not there will be another Coalition is simply the next election result. A strong Conservative majority, or a strong Labour majority, could reduce everything below to naught. But I hope you’ll read it anyway…
In an attempt to learn from what James Surowiecki calls "The Wisdom of Crowds", I asked yesterday on Twitter what difference a statutory register of lobbyists would have made to the Patrick Mercer case. The best answer I got was, first, that Mercer would have checked the register and, second, would have found the Panorama/Daily Telegraph operation wasn't on it - after which he presumably would not have been drawn into the sting. So the main difference a register would have made, according to my interlocutors, was to protect MPs against investigative journalists - not necessarily a very happy outcome.
However, it is possible that it wouldn't have made any difference at all, and certain that it would not do so in the case of an MP determined to breach the rules and the law. An MP who is prepared to defy both today in a quest for money is unlikely to be deterred by both tomorrow in the form of a statutory register. (Mercer was in breach of rules on paid advocacy, and faces a possible police investigation under the Bribery Act.) Furthermore, the wits of the regulators are unlikely to be more sharp than those of investigative journalists. As Mark Wallace pointed out, the latter could set up a front company in say, Switzerland - and get on the register that way.
Roy Jenkins used to argue that the Conservatives dominated British politics during the last century - and mustn't be allowed to do so in this one. He went on to maintain that the two parties of the left - the Liberal Democrats and Labour, as he saw it - should work together to keep the Tories out of office. When the voters returned a hung Parliament in 2010, David Cameron could have opted for a minority government. Instead, he chose coalition with the Liberal Democrats. I suspected at the time that part of his aim was to do a Jenkins in reverse: to ensure that his party and Nick Clegg's worked together to keep Labour out of office, and in doing so begin to rebuild his own party's Parliamentary dominance.
Working together, though, means coherence. And a problem even since the Cameron-Clegg rose garden love-in, brutally accentuated by the referendum defeat of AV, is that the blue and yellow teams are not natural partners. On economic matters, they have come closer together since the rise of the Orange Bookers. But on social and constitutional ones - the gut issues that move hearts as well as minds - their instincts and dispositions are different. When it comes to welfare, crime, immigration, Europe, the Lords, and the voting system, the two parties march to the beat of different drums. On these issues and most others, the most natural partner for Nick Clegg's party is Labour.
And almost a third want it to end as soon as possible - some 30%, according to the latest ConservativeHome survey.
17.5% want it to end in 2014. I'm interested to see that 37% want it to "stop shortly before the 2015 general election so the parties can set out their different plans".
That's my own view - although I think that David Cameron can prepare the way by loosening the Coalition from October 2014 onwards.
Just under 1850 people responded to the survey, of whom over 800 were Conservative Party members. The figures above are taken from the latter's views.