Cable attacks ‘ugly’ Tory politics
Monday 16th September 2013, 6:41PM BST.
Tensions within the coalition Government were laid bare today as Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister Vince Cable savaged Conservatives for an “ugly” politics of fear and callousness.
Mr Cable’s broadside came at the Lib Dems’ annual conference in Glasgow, where leader Nick Clegg gave his personal backing to key policies which could feature in the party’s manifesto for the 2015 general election – including free bus travel for teenagers and continued protection for NHS and schools budgets.
Mr Clegg saw off a challenge to his authority over economic policy from centre-left activists who wanted to water down the coalition’s austerity agenda. But he only narrowly avoided defeat by a margin of four votes on a motion to restore the 50p higher rate of income tax.
At a conference which has been marked by strenuous efforts by Lib Dem ministers to distance themselves from their Conservative coalition partners, Mr Clegg promised activists that every word of the 2015 manifesto would reflect independent Liberal Democrat ideas.
He accused Tories of trying to steal credit for lifting earnings below £10,000 out of income tax, telling the conference: “”We did it, not them. We did it. We must never, ever, ever allow the great progressive reforms that we are introducing in this Government to be appropriated by others.”
But it was Mr Cable who most viciously turned his fire against the Tories.
The Business Secretary said it was “both brave and absolutely right” to enter coalition at a time of economic emergency.
But he added: “Theresa May once characterised the Tories a decade ago as the nasty party. After a few years trying to be nice and inclusive it has reverted to type.
“We have got dog-whistle politics, orchestrated by an Australian Rottweiler, we have got hostility to organised labour, people on benefits and immigrant minorities.”
M r Cable said the Conservative Party disapproved of public sector workers, teachers, the unmarried and people who don’t own property. Their “prejudices” were explained in part by the advanced age of their members and in part by their belief that in difficult times “fear trumps hope” and “competence requires callousness”.
“That is not our kind of politics,” he said. “It is ugly, and we will not be dragged down by it. That’s why our Liberal Democrat message about fairness is absolutely key.”
Polls have suggested that Lib Dem activists would prefer to be in coalition with Labour. But Mr Clegg declined to say which of the main parties would be his first choice, and warned activists that any deal would not be easy.
“Don’t go into coalition if you want to have a nice time. It’s not a walk in the park, it is hard work, battling out these compromises,” he said.
Answering questions from delegates, Mr Clegg indicated that a further five years of protection for NHS and schools budgets is likely to feature in the Lib Dem election manifesto, despite growing concerns that the “ring-fence” is eating dangerously into the money available for other Government responsibilities, like law and order and welfare.
“We have done that between 2010 and 2015,” he said. “My personal view, and we will have to discuss it, but my personal view is we should do that again for 2015 to 2020.
“And make sure that one of the bedrocks of our approach, our Liberal Democrat approach, is that as we continue to make savings, as we clear the decks up to 2018, we do not make savings in the schools budget and the NHS budget – which I do not think is consistent with our views.”
The Deputy Prime Minister also revealed that he has asked Lib Dem ministers Norman Baker and David Laws to work on proposals for free bus travel for 16 and 17-year-olds, at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds. Arguing that it would make it easier for young people to attend education, training and apprenticeships, he said: “I really think this is something we should try to deliver in Government, and if we can’t do it with the Conservatives, we should certainly make a commitment in our next manifesto.”
The Lib Dem leader took the unusual step of speaking in today’s debate on the economy, to urge delegates not to back rebel amendments which would have watered down the party’s commitment to the Government’s deficit reduction plans and altered the mandate of the Bank of England in the hope of boosting investment, jobs and growth.
Rebel leader Naomi Smith, a member of the left-wing Social Liberal Forum, accused Mr Clegg of entering into an “ideological merger” with the Tories on economic policy and won cheers as she said Lib Dems should not “collude” with Chancellor George Osborne on cuts to public services.
But Mr Clegg urged delegates: “Please be careful for what you wish for.
“If we start messing about with the big goalposts we have stuck in the ground which frame the stability which is required for further economic growth, we will destroy jobs and decrease prosperity.”
Mr Clegg was boosted by an eleventh-hour climbdown by Mr Cable, who turned up to support him in the crucial votes, after initially indicating he would not attend the debate. His apparent reluctance formally to endorse his leader’s position sparked reports of a rift. But Mr Clegg dismissed the affair as “a storm in a teacup”, while sources close to Cable said suggestions of a split had been “blown up out of all proportion”.
The Lib Dem leader urged activists to “come together” after the motion backing his economic strategy was passed, arguing that they had to take ownership of the Government’s austerity measures.
The party would suffer at the polls if it was seen to be merely a “passive recipient” of tough Tory fiscal discipline, he warned.