Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Nick Clegg: Stick with me and we'll change Britain for ever.

I know I should care more about Nick Clegg's conference speech, but I simply don't. There's simply too much smoke and mirrors every time this guy tries to explain what he's up to.

He promised to prevent the Conservatives repeating their "slash and burn" cuts of the 1980s, whilst supporting a government suggesting cuts of between 25 and 40% across the board. That strikes me as contradictory.

Urging his party to join him on the difficult journey ahead, he asked members to "hold our nerve" as the public deficit was cleared. In return, he presented himself to his internal critics as the Coalition's conscience, promising to protect the most vulnerable people and parts of the country from the Treasury axe – despite warnings from analysts like the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the cuts will be regressive.

His 37-minute address, which had been cleared by David Cameron, declared that cuts would not be made for ideological reasons, a deliberate rebuff to Tory right-wingers. "It is not an ideological attack on the size of the state," he said. "It's not smaller government I believe in. It's a different kind of government: a liberating government."

It's easy to say that one is going to protect the most vulnerable, but the truth is that the cuts will affect the poorest the most. That is simply an undeniable fact. Osborne is seeking to make massive savings in areas like housing benefit. Only those earning the least need housing benefit.

Of course, there were some things that he got exactly right:
"I still think the war in Iraq was illegal. The difference is that lawyers now get anxious when I mention it," he said. He was making the point that the Liberal Democrats had not lost "our soul" by getting into bed with the Tories. "We haven't changed our liberal values. Our status is different but our ambition is the same," he said.
But opposition to the Iraq war does not automatically make one progressive. And that's my dilemma when it comes to Clegg. I am with him when he discusses abolishing identity cards and the surveillance state, I share his concern that the tax system should be made fairer, and I have no doubt that Cameron's Tories actually share his wish to dismantle ID cards and some areas of surveillance, but I don't buy his notion that the Tories are serious about ensuring that "Tax avoiders and evaders must have nowhere to hide."

With Lord Ashcroft playing such a pivotal role in the Tory election campaign, I found that claim to be laughable.

A well known Tax evader funded much of the Tory campaign, so how can Clegg - with a straight face - stand there and imagine that we will believe that the Tories are against such a thing?

And the claim which he seemed most proud of - "Never again will anyone be able to frighten voters by claiming that coalition government doesn't work" - is one that I have never actually heard anyone make.

The central thrust of his argument, and I will concede that it was well structured and that it went down well with a nervous Liberal Democrat crowd, was TINA: There Is No Alternative.

It's the same argument which Thatcher relied on in the eighties and that Blair posited when he was dragging us into the Iraq war. And it's a lie. There are always alternatives. Clegg and the Tories are trying to wipe out the deficit with obscene speed, oblivious to the pain which is going to be caused. It would be possible to tackle the deficit over a longer period of time. That is simply undeniable. So the central theme of his argument is a falsehood. No more true than when Thatcher or Blair relied on it.

And, none of these arguments were ever heard during Clegg's campaigning, or in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, so it's hard to listen to him say all this now and believe that one is watching a conviction politician.

As I say, I find it all to be smoke and mirrors. He's either adjusting to the new reality he finds himself in, or he was lying to us from day one.

And the fact that his speech was cleared by Cameron's office before he gave it, says everything about the death hug in which Cameron now holds Clegg.

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