A DEFIANT Nick Clegg has mounted a vigorous defence of the coalition’s welfare reforms, insisting the Government has an “absolute duty” to ensure the system is fair to all.
In a highly-political speech in Westminster on the eve of the fifth anniversary of his election as Liberal Democrat leader, Mr Clegg dismissed his dismal poll ratings and insisted the Lib Dems are now the only party firmly anchored to the political centre ground.
While acknowledging that two years of sweeping benefit cuts have at times been “painful and controversial”, the Deputy Prime Minister said that without reform there was a risk of a “total collapse” in public support for the whole principle of welfare.
His speech came at a difficult moment for the Lib Dems with a series of weekend opinion polls showing them slumping to fourth place behind UKIP, with their support down to single digit percentage points.
Mr Clegg’s former director of strategy, Richard Reeves, suggested yesterday that the “curtain will probably fall” on the coalition before 2015 if the party fails to boost its support.
“Next year is the year the Lib Dem strategy – deliver then differentiate – will be tested,” he wrote in a newspaper article published before Mr Clegg gave his speech.
“A more assertive stance in ‘act two’ of Coalition should mean greater support and more votes. If not the curtain will probably fall on the coalition before 2015.”
The Sheffield Hallam MP acknowledged that governing in difficult times had meant the party has been forced to acquire a “harder edge”, but said the alternative was “a retreat to the comfort and relative irrelevance of opposition”.
With the welfare system they inherited from the former Labour Government both badly designed and financially unaffordable, the coalition had no choice but to carry through major changes, he added.
In his address to the Centre Forum think-tank, he said: “When two-thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous and discourages work, then it has to be changed – or we risk a total collapse in public support for welfare existing at all.
“We need welfare protection for people who fall on hard times.
“But you cannot ask low income working people to pay through their taxes for people who aren’t in work to live more comfortably than they do.”
The Lib Dems had ensured that protections for the most vulnerable were built into the system, Mr Clegg said, adding that reform was not forced on them by Conservatives.
“It was in our manifesto and on our agenda right from the start,” he said. “The Liberal Democrats are now the party of welfare reform - sensible, centre ground welfare reform.”
Mr Clegg said the new Universal Credit – designed to ensure people are always better off in work - is in line with those principles.
“I want us to keep at the front of our minds the idea that a liberal state is an enabling state,” he added.
People with medical conditions should be given the support they needed to get work, rather than being left to live on sickness benefits, he suggested.
“Some conditions are so common that we simply cannot write sufferers off and pay them to stay at home,” he said.
“It is time for politicians and the benefits system to recognise that people with health conditions have just as much potential as everyone else if only they are given the help they need to get on.”
However, in a swipe at Chancellor George Osborne, who said the Government should be there for the “strivers” and not “shirkers”, Mr Clegg said not everyone who cannot find a job is simply being lazy.
When the Conservatives proposed benefit cuts of £10bn in the Autumn Statement, the Lib Dems had acted as a moderating force, ensuring they were held to £3.8bn, he said.
“Of course, there are some on the right who believe that no-one could possibly be out of work unless they’re a scrounger,” he said.
“The siren voices of the Tory right who peddle this myth could have pulled a majority Conservative government in the direction of draconian welfare cuts.”
But the Sheffield MP was equally dismissive of Labour’s approach.
“The Labour left lives in a different, but no less destructive, fantasy world where their irresponsible borrowing in Government can be remedied by borrowing more; where every budget reduction can be opposed without explaining where the money should come from,” he said.