Tim Farron sure has been pecking away at the Tory contribution to last week’s Autumn Statement. Even before George Osborne had revealed its contents, the Lib Dem President was telling interviewers that:
“I was as despondent as many reasonable people when David Cameron’s panic reaction to the issue in the last month or so was to decide to ditch all the green stuff, and it’s been a job and a half over the last month to make sure we hold him very much to those pledges, and the green core of this government.”
And then, in a post on his website welcoming the Statement overall, he made sure to add:
“I’m encouraged by measures to give councils more power to deliver homes through the new homes bonus and increased borrowing, but it is unacceptable that a Conservative bias towards current home owners has weakened our ability to tackle the housing crisis effectively. More needs to be done.”
But today Farron has stopped pecking, and gone into full eagle-tearing-at-its-prey mode. Here’s what he tells Polly Toynbee, for the benefit of her Guardian column, about the cuts that Osborne has woven into his budget for up until 2019:
“‘This is the kind of thing we’re in coalition to stop. Nothing we agree can go beyond 2015. If we voted for Osborne’s bill, that would write most of our manifesto, so I have no intention of signing up to those kinds of cuts. We should not need to take a scalpel to the rest of the state.’ This is about the Lib Dems’ political future: ‘We are not planning for a Tory deal post 2015, we need a free hand.’ While there needs to be ‘stability in the recovery’, he said they ‘will not sign up to an ideological downsizing of the state’.”
So far, this may be unsurprising. The Lib Dems are, increasingly, in the business of differentiating themselves from their Coalition partners. And the nature of any cuts after 2015 is one of those areas of differentiation, as this year’s Spending Review demonstrated.
But there’s a complication, and it’s one that Toynbee notes. Farron’s party leader, Nick Clegg, has boasted – in conversation with Matthew d’Ancona – that the Autumn Statement was “one of the most fully co-authored fiscal moments of this coalition government”. Co-authors, hmm? That’s not quite the same as Farron’s free hand.
This division is worth keeping an eye on, not least because of how it might impinge on future Budgets. There are some Lib Dems, Clegg among them, who probably regard Osborne’s fiscal statements as a chance to promote Lib Dem policies such as the tax-free allowance and free school meals. There are others who will see them as a chance for easy opposition. The question is: which face will get the most air-time?
And all this could impinge on the Coalition, as well. As the election approaches, there’ll be more pressure on Clegg to depart from Osborne’s fiscal outline. If he yields, then it would be practically impossible for the Con-Lib partnership to continue all the way until 7th May 2015.