Nick Clegg’s comments in an FT interview that “This Budget was pretty close to what would have been delivered if I was prime minister and we had a Liberal Democrat chancellor” aren’t a shock. It’s an attempt to portray the Lib-Dems and himself as genuine partners with the Tories, having influence on high-level policies such as the Budget. He’s not just along for the ride, the willing stooge betraying his values, seduced by the trappings of power into making the whole thing possible.
Of course the Lib-Dems didn’t campaign the general election on that basis, then opposing the Tory plans to cut deep and fast at every opportunity. The line sometimes used to sidestep the allegation that they lied is that difficult choices had to be made once they were in government. They hadn’t realised the scale of the problem and were forced into changing their policy on the fly to suit the circumstances the nation found itself in.
The sop to Lib-Dem members however, many of whom may feel uncomfortable with backing the level of cuts, is that coalition politics mean you don’t always agree with each other. If you want the AV system, which the Lib-Dems genuinely did campaign for in the belief it would catapult them back into the very centre of British politics, you have to be prepared to work with whoever your coalition partners are. It’s necessary for the national good to maintain the united front of government. By implication they are saying “We don’t agree with this, but we have to do it. Don’t hate us.” The New Politics in action.
So which is it? In stating that his Chancellor wouldn’t have done anything different to George Osborne, he removes his ability to walk the tightrope for his members’ piece of mind, implying disapproval but voting for it anyway. The New Politics don’t apply here, because he so strongly approves of the Budget. There’s no reluctance, no regret. No backing the Tories in the interests of unity. No doing it for the national good. Clegg has nailed his colours to the mast, and there can be no stepping back from it.
Where that will leave the Lib-Dems with the electorate in a year or more is open to conjecture, but the abandonment of the stance of reluctant unity for one of full agreement with Tory economics may also give the party’s own support base pause for thought.