Nick Clegg has declared the Liberal Democrats are far from sheepish or ashamed about the coalition’s economic policies, despite going to Cornwall instead of attending the autumn statement and his senior colleague Vince Cable questioning some of its financial forecasts.
The deputy prime minister said he co-authored the document presented by George Osborne and was proud of it, but thought it was better to be out talking to “normal people” than listening to the Commons debate.
He also dismissed as “complete nonsense tittle-tattle” the idea that there is internal conflict within the Lib Dems over how to differentiate from the Conservatives between Cable and Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the treasury.
Clegg’s absence from parliament for the third Wednesday in a row suggested that he is trying to distance himself from David Cameron and Osborne in the runup to the election.
However, he attempted to take credit for the central policies of the statement, including the stamp duty overhaul unveiled by Osborne, when questioned on his LBC 97.3 radio show by Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor.
“Everything in that autumn statement is there because we’ve agreed it and I fully support it,” Clegg said.
“I had a choice: did I listen to Ed Balls in the House of Commons or go out and talk to normal people.
“Politics is far too trapped by listening to Ed Balls’ spluttering economic nonsense that we heard yesterday. What people are interested in is what it means for their family.”
Asked why he was still propping up the coalition, Clegg said: “It’s not propped up, I’ve steered it. Ed Balls thinks I somehow want to deny that I’m a co-author. I don’t. Stamp duty reform is something my party has been banging on about for years.
“If anyone thinks I am sheepish or ashamed of what this government has done in that respect, I am proud, I own it, we co-authored it. It is a Lib Dem autumn statement just as much as anything else.”
Clegg’s argument was that the Lib Dems own the coalition’s existing policies but feel differently from the Conservatives about how to proceed in future, favouring more tax rises and different spending cuts.
However, there appears to be some internal conflict within the Lib Dems about how to manage their decoupling from the Tories and future economic direction.
It emerged on Wednesday that Cable, the business secretary, wrote to the public spending watchdog two weeks ago arguing forecasts after 2016 are unpredictable because Osborne’s plans to bring public spending down to 35% of GDP are “wholly unrealistic”.
In response to this, Alexander, the Lib Dem chief secretary to the treasury, who has taken the economic portfolio off Cable, said: “Vince is entitled to write to whomsoever he wishes, but it’s not the job of the OBR [Office for Budget Responsibility] to set out political differences between parties.”
In a further twist, Lord Palumbo, the Lib Dem peer and its chief donor, will use a speech on Thursday to condemn a political system that has seen public debt spiral, along with the deficit.
“There’s no sanction for the government having missed all its economic targets without penalty in modern democratic politics,” he will say. “What are instantly sackable offences in the private sector are excused. We were promised a deficit of £35bn this year. It’s at £100bn.”
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