Nick Clegg rejected Vince Cable’s call for higher borrowing to fund major building projects today as he insisted the Liberal Democrats would not “flinch” from tackling the deficit.
In his keynote speech to the Lib Dem spring conference in Brighton, the Deputy Prime Minister turned his fire on Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who pledged on Saturday to scrap the Human Rights Act and said that pulling Britain out of the European Convention on Human Rights was “on the table”.
Promising to veto the move, Mr Clegg replied: “I tell you, it won’t be on the Cabinet table so long as I’m sitting round it.”
He attacked Conservatives who “would actively take away rights enjoyed by British citizens just to appease their backbenchers”, but appeared to exempt David Cameron of the charge of “lurching to the right”.
The Lib Dem leader insisted that he agreed with Mr Cable for the need for a boost to infrastructure spending and flexibility in tackling the deficit. “Balancing the books is a judgement, not a science,” he said. “Our plan has always allowed room for manoeuvre.” But he pointedly did not endorse the Business Secretary’s call for £14bn of extra borrowing to kickstart the economy, saying: “There are no cost-free, risk-free ways of finding such huge sums of money.” One Clegg aide said: “We are not going to start borrowing more money.”
Mr Clegg declared: “Countries around the world face the same, hard truth: We must all pay the piper in the end. I want to make one thing clear: We will not flinch on the deficit. But to be unflinching is not to be unthinking. And the idea that the choice is between a cruel and unbending Plan A and a mythical Plan B is simply not the case.”
Internal Lib Dem tensions over the Coalition’s economic strategy surfaced at the weekend’s conference. Grassroots allies of Mr Cable failed in an attempt to win an emergency debate in which they would have pushed an economic “Plan C”, or “Plan Cable”.
Naomi Smith, co-chair of the Social Liberal Forum pressure group, said it was “astonishing” the conference did not discuss the economy. She added: “If the Osbornomics that Clegg and Danny [Alexander, Chief Treasury Secretary] have signed us up to is supposed to be working, with flatlined growth and inflation at double the rate of average earnings, I’d hate to see it fail.”
Issuing a plea for party unity, Mr Clegg told delegates: “No one will know what we stand for unless we stand together. As our opponents argue among themselves and turn inwards it is even more important that we build on – rather than squander – the magnificent resolve and unity we have shown over the last three years.”
The Lib Dem leader argued that his party is on a journey from being one of protest, “the automatic none-of-the-above choice,” to one delivering change in power. He said: “There is a myth that governing together, in coalition, diminishes the ability of the smaller party to beat the bigger party. The idea that, in Tory-facing seats the Liberal Democrats will find it impossible to distinguish our record, our values, from theirs. But that myth has been utterly confounded. The opposite is true. The longer you stand side-by-side with your opponents, the easier your differences are to see.”
Rehearsing the Lib Dems’ key message for the 2015 election, Mr Clegg said Labour could not be trusted on the economy while the Tories could not be trusted to create a fair society. He said: “We are the party that shares the country’s priorities: Fair taxes; better schools; jobs. The only party that will deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society, enabling every one to get on in life.”