For a supposedly moderating force among politicians of left and right, Nick Clegg is jolly forthright. Having already said in the past that to leave the EU would be “economic suicide”, he on Monday laid into Theresa May’s plans for a cap on immigrant numbers with equal ferocity. (He was uninhibited by Theresa May’s prim observation earlier that she did not “comment on leaks” – before going on to do exactly that – since as Clegg pointed out, the Home Office had done the leaking, presumably on Ms May’s orders.)
Then he said it would be “completely unacceptable” to strip child benefit from parents of three children or more, as the Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi has suggested. A much better welfare reform would be not to “ask ordinary taxpayers on low pay to pay for the universal benefits for Alan Sugar’s entitlement to his free television licence or winter fuel payment.”
But sometimes he is so forthright that – endearingly – he frightens even himself. Having singled out the unfortunate Lord Sugar, he hastened to add: “He always gets upset when I say that. I’m not saying he is taking it.” It also became clear that he was not quite ruling out ever restricting benefit to two children, being adamant that it mustn’t be done for parents who “presently” have more than two. He said, rightly, that there was something “a bit arbitrary” about governments deciding how many children they would support. But he didn’t want to “get into” ruling things in or out at the moment. Just as he said of George Osborne’s plan to make the welfare cap lower than £26,000: “It’s not something we’re advocating at the moment.” Like all the best politicians Clegg can do vague as well as forthright.
And inconsistent. He didn’t explain – and to be fair, he wasn’t asked – why if he was so keen on making benefits less universal he was also boasting of spending £600m to extend free school meals for first and second-year primary schoolchildren to better-off families as well as the poor.
Instead, rehearsing Lib Dem achievements, he argued those who had called for an economic Plan B had now been “wrong-footed”. Which will be news to those super-eminent economists who had called for just that. And he lamented that Labour and the Tories had sabotaged even “wafer thin” reforms to the Lords. Which he mysteriously pronounced “waffa-thin” – as in Laffer curve. Why, wasn’t clear. Was he thinking of the French restaurant sketch from Monty Python in which the maître d’, John Cleese, offers the super-obese projectile-vomiting gourmand Mr Creosote a “waffa thin” mint? He clearly had chocolate on his mind because to show how reform-minded he was about the EU, he complained it had taken 15 years to agree a directive on the stuff.