Nick Clegg accuses Conservatives of 'rigging the rules' in attempt to create 'one-party state'

Exclusive: Former Deputy Prime Minister says David Cameron is 'squandering' the Coalition's 'progressive legacy'

Andrew Grice
Thursday 25 February 2016 21:35 GMT
Nick Clegg says he made decisions as Lib Dem leader without benefit of hindsight
Nick Clegg says he made decisions as Lib Dem leader without benefit of hindsight

Nick Clegg has accused the Conservatives of “Americanising” British politics by “rigging the rules” against their opponents in the hope of creating a “one-party state.”

In his first newspaper interview since last May’s general election, the former Deputy Prime Minister condemned David Cameron for using “One Nation rhetoric” to mask his Government’s decision to abandon the Coalition’s progressive policies.

Mr Clegg told The Independent that the Tories had departed dramatically from the tradition that the “rules of the game” in British politics were agreed on a cross-party basis.

He cited their “petty, spiteful” moves to cripple Labour’s funding by changing the way trade unionists pay the political levy and cutting state funding for opposition parties.

He said: “If you look at the way the Conservatives seek to hobble and neuter Westminster, the bullying swagger with which they treat the BBC, the general air of hubris, there is a feeling that politics is being reduced to the whims and mood swings of one political party. That is not healthy.

“A combination of US-style game playing by the Conservatives and Labour’s self-indulgence is conspiring to leave millions of British voters completely voiceless.”

The former Liberal Democrat leader said: “It has got George Osborne’s fingerprints all over it. It is the Lyndon Johnson style of politics” – a reference to the US President in the 1960s who was seen as a ruthless bully. He also likened the Chancellor to Jose Mourinho, the former Chelsea manager, saying they were both “very clever, very skilled” but took “a little too much pleasure at the misfortunes of others” and “twisting the knife”.

Mr Clegg said: “In one-party politics without any meaningful opposition, people can fool themselves that if they have said something, it must be true. They distort the English language and talk about social mobility when doing precisely the opposite… They believe their own hype.”

Nick Clegg believes the Tories have departed dramatically from the tradition that the “rules of the game” in British politics were agreed on a cross-party basis (PA)

Warning that other parties would eventually take their revenge, Mr Clegg said: “The Conservatives need to watch out. One day, the boot will be on the other foot. They might think they will be in power forever, but they won’t be. Things change.”

When Mr Cameron promised a “One Nation” government after winning last year’s election, Mr Clegg was hopeful that the Prime Minister would build on the Coalition’s “progressive legacy”.

Nine months on, Mr Clegg believes that legacy is being “squandered”, saying he has been “provoked” into speaking out against his former coalition partner. “The rhetoric at the beginning from David Cameron was good. I held my tongue. But I am afraid the very thin gruel the Prime Minister has announced, and the deeply regressive steps taken by his Chancellor, means it is insecure, hollow double-speak,” he said.

“People need be judged by their actions, not their words… They are trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes by indulging in poetic rhetoric, while what is happening in people’s lives is going in exactly the opposite direction.”

Clegg: PM is a "lucky general"

Mr Clegg has drawn up a long charge sheet. He claimed Mr Cameron professed to care about social mobility while scrapping maintenance grants that enabled disadvantaged children to go to university; targeting help with childcare to better off families rather than those who need it most; reducing the incentive to work for people relying on state benefits; ditching child poverty targets; and cutting the schools’ budget and “Pupil Premium”, for children from poor families, in real terms.

He is not surprised that a Conservative government is acting like this, but angry because, he claimed, it pretends to be something it is not. “The reason I am speaking out is that I do care about the things we advocated in coalition as we balanced the books in the fairest possible way. They are being unpicked by the Conservatives,” he said.

Mr Clegg lifted the lid on two revealing battles fought behind closed doors at the top of the Coalition. Before its final Budget, he proposed an expansion of childcare provision for two-year-olds from poor families, widely seen as the best way of boosting life chances. But Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne rejected the idea, admitting that “all we want to do is to shoot Labour’s fox” by offering 30 hours of free childcare for older children to trump Labour’s 25-hour pledge.

Similarly, when the Lib Dems pushed repeatedly in the last parliament for money to build social housing, the Prime Minister and Chancellor rebuffed them with the stark message: “All it does is produce more Labour voters.”

Moreover, the Tories took credit for Lib Dem ideas, notably their flagship policy of raising the personal tax allowance. Initially, Mr Clegg recalled, Mr Osborne demanded Lib Dem concessions in return for “your policy”. But when Sir Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ Australian election strategist arrived on the scene and realised the tax cuts were popular and fair, the Tories suddenly claimed the policy as their own and wrote the Libs Dems out of the script. “It was not honest,” he said. “But that’s politics.”

It might sound like sour grapes from the man who admitted his party was “massacred” – its 57 MPs were reduced to just eight – but it is not. Surprisingly, Mr Clegg does not feel betrayed that his coalition partners ruthlessly targeted Lib Dem seats to win an unexpected majority.

Without bitterness, he said: “Politics is a brutal business. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. I don’t have much time for people who whinge or whine.”

Mr Clegg was naturally bruised by his party’s shattering defeat and friends say it took a complete break from politics last August to get over it. Although he has enthusiastically taken up causes such as drug law reform and educational inequality, the suspicion at Westminster is that the 49-year-old MP for Sheffield Hallam will seek fresh challenges after the 2020 election.

Mr Clegg disputes the thrust of the Lib Dem inquest into last year’s rout, which listed a catalogue of errors. He accepted that the report reflects the feelings inside his party, but insisted that the fundamental cause of the result was the decision to enter the Coalition in 2010 rather than a specific slogan or policy – even the U-turn over university tuition fees.

He pointed out that progressive parties across Europe suffered a similar electoral disaster after being in coalition with the centre-right.

Mr Clegg interrupted my killer question: if he had had a crystal ball that saw just eight seats after the 2015 election, would he have still joined forces with the Tories? He accused his critics of “hindsight”, saying that difficult decisions when “you are between a rock and a hard place” must be made at the time, not with the benefit of “20/20 vision”.

Down and out: Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg looks dejected the day after 2015's election annihilation (AP)

He finds it difficult to imagine another coalition without a cast-iron guarantee of proportional representation – probably without a referendum. He insists his battered party will bounce back and can see a ray of hope on the horizon even in today’s one-party state.

“The party that should be most desperately in favour [of PR] is Labour. In my view, Labour cannot win power again, as long as the SNP dominates Scotland, without electoral reform. Labour has not twigged that yet,” he said.

He envisages a time when all the parties except the Tories back reform, making it possible to win a Commons vote. “The dam will eventually break. The Conservatives cannot unilaterally impose a blanket veto on constitutional change for their own ends,” he said. “Labour needs to wake up and smell the coffee.”

Mr Clegg’s regrets are too few mention. “I stand by my actions,” he said. “I take responsibility for the things that went wrong on my watch. I took the decisions I took – some good, some bad. I tried to make the right judgements for the right motives in the circumstances in which I found myself.”

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