The headline glaring out from the cover of today’s Daily Mirror: “Clegg: We must axe bedroom tax.” Is this the Lib Dems final break from the constraints of governing in coalition?
Well, no, not really. The truth, as George Eaton says, is more complicated than those bold, black capital-letters would have you believe. The Lib Dems aren’t actually calling for the Coalition’s changes to housing benefit to be repealed. They’re calling for them to be reformed. “The plans will see those already in the social rented sector only lose their benefit if they are offered a suitable smaller home and turn it down,” explains a statement on the party’s website. “It would also permanently exempt disabled adults.”
This is an expression, more or less, of the motion passed by Lib Dem activists at their conference last September. Which makes the whole affair analogous to that time when Clegg, contra Michael Gove, said that every state-funded school should have qualified teachers and follow the National Curriculum. These were two policies that had been passed into being at another previous Lib Dem conference. Clegg was simply speaking as Liberal Democrat leader, rather than as Deputy Prime Minister – something he will do more and more of as the election approaches.
Except, in this case, it’s harder to discern what Clegg is trying to achieve. Any Tory-minded voters alighting on the Mirror headline will probably just think he’s a two-faced so-and-so. Any Labour-minded voters will either think, “But you helped introduce it in the first place!” Or, if they read on into the article itself, “You don’t actually want to axe it!” For a party leader who has already hurt himself on the difference between expectations and reality, it’s puzzling why he and his team are, apparently, okay with this situation.
All that said, and despite Rachel Reeves’ response, today’s machinations do move the Lib Dems slightly closer to Labour. Stephen Tall already had the “bedroom tax” on his growing list of policies about which those two parties now agree – but it will be worth keeping an eye on whether that agreement fully manifests itself ahead of the next election. If people like Tim Farron have anything do with it, the call for reform could soon change into one for repeal.