Nick Clegg is in a pugnacious mood at the moment. First there was the very conveniently leaked memo in which Lib Dem strategists urged MPs to criticise their Tory Coalition partners publicly. Now he’s gone on the attack against Labour’s spending plans, or lack thereof. The Deputy Prime Minister writes in The Times:
‘The Labour leadership continue to complain about the coalition’s approach, but without providing any credible alternative. They’re learning the tricks of opposition and finding their rhetorical refrains. But where are the numbers? Where are their sums? The country has undergone the biggest economic crisis in living memory, yet they offer no explanation of how they’d get us out of this mess, nor any admission of responsibility for their part in creating it.’
He challenges Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to be open about which cuts they would keep and which they would lose, adding:
‘To oppose everything is to offer nothing, and the country will not be duped. The biggest divide in politics today – here and around the world – is between those who offer leadership and those who only offer dissent.’
In September, Clegg made clear that his pitch for the 2015 election would be ‘are you ready to trust Ed Balls with the nation’s finances again?’ He has quite a tightrope walk ahead of him, as he doesn’t want to alienate Labour to the extent that it would be impossible for his party – with or without Clegg – to form a coalition in 2015. But it is important for the Lib Dems at the same time to show that in going into coalition with those Tories they plan to attack, they were eschewing the easy purity of opposition. His Times piece is largely a list of What the Government Has Done, right up until his attack on Labour in the final paragraphs.
But while there’s not a whisker of dissent with the Tories on the central mission of deficit reduction, Lib Dem HQ wants to see the party’s MPs making it clear on a regular basis that they have been stopping the Tories ‘looking after the super rich while ignoring the needs of normal people’.
This is the strategy that Clegg’s former adviser Richard Reeves was keen to advocate when he was in Number 10. But the Tories don’t want the same gory government-style differentiation, arguing that it damages public perception of how well the coalition is working if the two parties make a point of having a public disagreement over every new policy. Interestingly, they seem more relaxed about dissent and public criticism when it comes from their own MPs, while the Coalition has, until now, remained largely united. That balance could well change over the next year, and next week’s mid-term review will provide a useful opportunity for us to see how a more pugnacious coalition is going to work.