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Nick Clegg turns up the volume

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.


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