David Cameron accused Nick Clegg of adopting a “pick and mix” approach to the coalition after the deputy prime minister claimed that the Liberal Democrats had restrained the Tories from imposing cuts to the schools budget.
The prime minister hit out at his coalition partner after the deputy prime minister moved to reach out to disaffected former Liberal Democrat voters, who abandoned the party after the formation of the coalition, with a series of aggressive assaults.
Clegg accused the Tories of planning to impose “ideologically driven cuts” of £3bn on the schools budget in the next parliament, adding that the prime minister had tried to introduce further cuts over the past five years.
An exasperated Cameron turned on his deputy to say: “That’s completely wrong. We’ve got £7bn for new primary school places. I have to say, you know – with Nick Clegg, we sat in the cabinet room together, we took difficult decisions together. Nick, I defend all of the decisions we took, and I think your sort of pick and mix approach really is not going to convince anyone.”
Clegg shot back to say: “No no no. I remember vividly when your party wanted to cut spending for schools at the beginning of the last parliament and I said no because you don’t make society fairer by cutting the money that goes to nurseries, colleges and schools.”
Miliband intervened: “I think they are both blaming each other and they are right.”
Clegg deployed tactics to differentiate himself from the prime minister which appear to have been carefully rehearsed in his preparations for the debate. In early exchanges, in answer to the first question on public finances, Clegg challenged the prime minister on plans to impose heavy cuts.
As the floor was opened up for the first time by the ITV moderator, Julie Etchingham, Clegg said: “Actually I’ve got a question for David Cameron because he has just said to all of us that he wants to stay the course. But of course that is not what the Conservative party want to do at all. Remarkably the Conservative party have said they are not going to ask the richest in society to make a single extra penny of contribution to balancing the books through the tax system. They want to impose ideologically driven cuts on schools.”
Clegg then mocked one of the Tories’ central campaign messages – that they offer competence rather than the chaos of their opponents. “When I hear the Conservatives talk about the choice between competence and chaos – just imagine, David Cameron, the chaos in people’s lives, the people who in the NHS who don’t know if their nursery or their college or their schools are going to close.”
The prime minister said: “Nick is wrong about our plans because we are going to raise £5bn from tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. That is part of the balanced plan.”
Clegg’s tactics were part of his strategy to show how he would provide a “heart” to the Tories and a “spine” to Labour if he formed a coalition with either of them. But his tactics appeared to have had little impact as a series of polls showed the Lib Dem leader trailing the prime minister, Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon in the instant polls. A Guardian/ICM poll placed Clegg in fifth place on 9%.
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