Left Watch

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Lib Dems can't decide whether they support or oppose the Government

By Harry Phibbs
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Tim Farron MP, the President of the Liberal Democrats, says that his colleagues are like cockroaches. He means the comparison to be positive, telling The House magazine:

“We’re a bit like cockroaches after a nuclear war, just a bit less smelly: we are made of sterner stuff."

For many Tories, using the term "cockroaches" to describe their coalition partners would be mild . So often Lib Dem Ministers behave as if collective responsibility doesn't apply to them.

The Business Secretary Vince Cable is at it again this morning in a Guardian interview which he uses to attack the Government on spending cuts. He says:

"The proposals for the one-year spending review, as we understand it, is for 85% spending cuts versus 15% tax rises. Certainly as a Liberal Democrat I would question that. There should be a better balance."

Instead he wants an extra £15 billion of spending on capital projects. He also says that if there are any more cuts they shouldn't go on his department:

"But Cable is angry that so much spending has been deemed protected – the budgets of schools, health, aid and defence equipment will not be cut. "In opposition I did not think that was a sensible way to approach public spending. I have gone along with it in government in coalition, as part of the team and all that, and we did that in the first wave of public spending cuts."

Is that the Lib Dem view? To protect business subsidies and instead cut spending on the NHS, schools and Overseas Aid?

Mr Cable's retreat into 1970s corporatism is disappointing, as is his self styled role as shop steward for the National Union of Ministers.When in opposition, he called not merely for spending cuts for what is now his department, but its abolition - along with the trade missions and the subsidies it handed out.

Writing in the Orange Book he decried:

"..a misguided non-economic belief that Government salesman and taxpayer's money 'save' or 'create' jobs." Cable also demanded bold deregulation: "What often seem desirable measures in isolation are becoming, cumulatively, very onerous."

Free trade Lib Dem Orange Bookers should join the Conservatives.

At least Nick Clegg speaks out in support of the Government. In the Conference brochure for their Spring Conference in Brighton, the Deputy Prime Minister selectively recites some Government achievements. He includes raising the tax threshold to reduce tax for the low paid and claims this as a specifically Lib Dem achievement. The Conservatives are too indulgent about letting the Lib Dems get away with this. Getting the spending cuts required to finance it from Lib Dem Ministers has been like getting blood out of a stone. Anyway at least Mr Clegg is willing to get stuck into the task of defending the Government's record.

By contrast ,Mr Farron uses his message to focus on Lib Dem "achievements" before they entered Government. - for instance in opposing the Iraq War. Actually Lord Ashdown backed that war and Charles Kennedy sat on the fence. But so what? Even if the Lib Dems had expressed a clear and united view, how can merely giving an opinion amount to an achievement? Mr Farron's trip down memory lane is a diversionary tactic. It is designed to forget about being in Government and recall the comforting era of opportunistic, irresponsible protest.

Most of the items to be debated call for retreat and emasculation of Government reforms rather than radical calls to press further. There are illiberal calls to impose the National Curriculum on free schools. They also want to oblige free schools to recruit teachers qualified by a teaching training college - although independent schools flourish without this constraint. Rather than rebutting misleading accusations from the Labour Party about a "bedroom tax" or "NHS privatisation" the motions for this conference echo such accusations.

This, more than the scandals over Lord Rennard or Chris Huhne, is the difficulty for the Lib Dems. They are not proud of the Government but ashamed of it. Sullen passengers saying they don't like the direction, but refusing to get off the bus. At the next election those whose overall judgment is that the Government has taken us in the right direction should vote Conservative, those who feel it has taken us in the wrong direction should vote Labour. What is the point of anyone voting Lib Dem?