A speech we can read on the Internet is Nick Clegg’s to the Lib Dem party conference in 2008. I still reckon it’s one of the most significant that a party leader has delivered in recent years, if only because it encapsulated what Clegg did to his party: turning it from an organisation of the centre-left to one of the centre-right. There’s a lot in there about how Government wastes money. There’s a whole section about how spending should be cut to fund tax cuts. This is the Clegg who would soon be comfortable talking of “savage cuts”, and whose party would castigate the Tories – I’ll repeat that, the Tories – for not being tough enough on spending.
I mention this now because of how it differs from Clegg’s remarks yesterday. Referring back to David Cameron’s speech this week – and its suggestion that “we need to do more with less … permanently” – the Lib Dem leader claimed that the Tories are ideologically bent on “an indefinite period of austerity and diminishing public services”. As he put it, “On the Right of British politics, you’ve got a view that says, ‘It’s good to cut for cutting’s sake.’” He did make sure to criticise the opposite tendency, held by Labour, towards “unsustainable borrowing and spending”, but the tonal contrast with that 2008 speech was still striking. Clegg was caricaturing Cameron’s call for a “leaner, more efficient state”, and then attacking the caricature.
So what’s changed between 2008 and now? Why, Coalition, of course. So that his party aren’t subsumed by the Tories, nor dismantled by the electorate in 2015, Clegg is doing everything he can to differentiate his party from their partners in Government. And if that means painting himself as a middle-of-the-road cutter compared to the Tories’ delirious fast-lane fly-boys, then so be it.
It’s all part of what Tim Montgomerie recently portrayed as Lib Dem mudslinging in his column for the Times (£). In truth, mud has been slung in both directions, but the difference is that the Lib Dems have a more deliberate and concerted attack. They are, by their account, the nice ones in Government stopping the nasty ones doing all their nasty work. But what is the Tories’ account of the Lib Dems? Are Clegg & Co. the unreliable ones? The obstructive ones? The childish ones? Speak to any Conservative politician, and one or more of these attacks will often come up – but none of them have been pushed forward with any consistency.
This isn’t to say that the Tories should develop a sustained attack on the Lib Dems, at least not this far from the election – that would imperil the cohesion of the Coalition, and make another far less likely in the event of another hung parliament. But a solid defence would be a start, particularly against this new spin on familiar material. The Tory leadership used to be very good at highlighting areas of government waste and how they had cut them; which is a practice they should disinter, even if it is more difficult three years into power. They should also talk more frequently about those areas where better public services have been delivered for less.
But, above all, they should avoid giving succour to Clegg’s arguments, and come across as humans rather than as accountants with whips. In presentational terms, that means more speeches like Cameron’s to the 2009 party conference – which is, yes, a bit more difficult to find online now.