Editorial: Another tricky balance for Mr Clegg to strike

Related Topics

With just two weeks to go, Coalition horse-trading over the Chancellor's Autumn Statement is intensifying. And if the stakes are high for George Osborne, they are hardly less so for Nick Clegg.

Although the economy is at least now growing again, the combination of recent recession and doubtful future leaves early December's "mini-Budget" a far from cheery affair. Even with the extra £35bn snatched back from the quantitative easing scheme, the Chancellor is almost certain to have to admit that the public finances are in too poor a shape to start paying off Britain's debts in 2015 as planned.

There is a political cost to the admission: opponents of the Government's deficit-reduction plan will claim it as evidence that the strategy is proving counterproductive. But the alternative – yet more swingeing cuts to public spending – would be costlier still. Why? In part, because austerity is already hurting so many. In part, because Mr Osborne has not yet set out how he will meet his other, altogether more important, fiscal target – to rein in routine Government overspending.

He has already acknowledged that the pain will continue into the next Parliament, thanks to the unexpectedly moribund economy. What he must do now, as well as explaining how he will boost growth, is spell out where another £10bn worth of savings will come from.

It is here that Mr Clegg comes in. Where the Chancellor has his cost-cutting eye on the Government's vast welfare bill, the Deputy Prime Minister wants to ensure that austerity is spread more fairly. Mr Osborne's original plan for a two-year freeze on all benefits was, therefore, immediately vetoed. But a revival of Liberal Democrat proposals for a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2m received similarly short shrift from the Conservatives.

The two sides are now inching closer to a deal: Mr Clegg has indicated he might accept a partial freeze (on Jobseeker's Allowance and Income Support, perhaps) provided it is balanced by a greater contribution from the wealthy as well. Extra council tax bands for expensive houses are one option under consideration, although Prime Ministerial opposition to property taxes makes a hike in top-end stamp duty more likely.

The trade-off is a reasonable one. But reaching a deal with the Chancellor is just the first of Mr Clegg's challenges; his own supporters may prove harder to persuade. While the Deputy Prime Minister has no option but to back a crimp on benefits – welfare is too sizeable a chunk of Government spending for it to be affordably left untouched – recent comments from a Liberal Democrat former minister branding the Coalition's benefits cap "immoral" hint at the strength of grassroots feeling on the subject. With Mr Clegg already fighting to retain the support of his party, signing off more cuts will only add to his travails.

Nor is it simply a matter of internal dissent. After the catastrophes of tuition fees and House of Lords reform, to name but two, the Liberal Democrats face electoral meltdown, accused of selling their soul for a snatch at power.

The only hope is to persuade supporters and voters alike that the party has been a real restraint on the Tories, that a higher income tax threshold, say, is a prize worth the compromises elsewhere. In fact, the unpopular Mr Clegg deserves a break. Coalition has hurt his party, but it was still the right decision for the country. Ditto tuition fees. Ditto – in this instance – a partial, temporary freeze on welfare payments, provided he can, indeed, secure a meaningful wealth tax in return.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Welsh Year 6 Teacher required in Barry

£100 - £110 per day + Plus travel scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Welsh Teacher Year 2 required in Caerphilly

£100 - £105 per day + plus Travel Scheme: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job:...

Year 4 Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to work in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pro-democracy protesters fill the streets in front of the Hong Kong government offices on a third day of the Occupy Central campaign  

Hong Kong protests: Why are we obsessed with the spread of democracy abroad when ours is failing?

Amit Singh

Daily catch-up: ugly buildings, fighting spirit, and a warning on low pay

John Rentoul
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?