Tom Richmond: Clegg’s petulant boycott leaves him in deep water

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I’M afraid Nick Clegg exposed the limitations of the Liberal Democrats with his petulant one-man boycott of the Autumn Statement in order to fly to the South West to inspect some flood defences being built in one of the Cornish constituencies that the party holds.

Such a decision – the Deputy Prime Minister did not want to be pictured alongside David Cameron while the scale of future spending cuts was becoming clear – is unlikely to do the Sheffield Hallam MP any favours on polling day.

To his credit, Mr Clegg did agree to enter coalition with the Tories because it was in the national interest to do so. It has necessitated both parties to make concessions and a senior Lib Dem, Danny Alexander, remains George Osborne’s number two at the Treasury.

However Mr Clegg’s behaviour on Wednesday was wrong on several counts. First, why did he not make his position clear after the Cabinet meeting which endorsed the Autumn Statement?

Second, what does it say about the Lib Dems, and their commitment to the environment, that Mr Clegg saw fit to fly to Penzance so he could be filmed inspecting flood defences? I trust the party, and not the taxpayer, will be footing the bill for this escapade. The party leader’s unease did not prevent him from announcing £5.3m for coastal paths on Thursday.

Third, Penzance just happens to be in the St Ives constituency that the Lib Dems won by 1,719 votes from the Tories in 2010. Is this final confirmation that 
the party’s election strategy simply revolves around a desperate battle to hold existing seats?

Fourth, why did the Lib Dems issue a Press Release at 1.24pm – the very moment that the Chancellor completed his speech – which was headlined “Autumn Statement has Liberal Democrat policy at its core – Danny Alexander”? It went on to detail four policies that the party had influenced, not least changes to stamp duty and the raising of the personal tax allowance by a further £100 next April.

Fifth, who now speaks for the Lib Dems on the economy? Is it the party leader who was missing in action, the Treasury chief secretary who was cheering Mr Osborne, or Vince Cable who, in his capacity as Business Secretary, says the Tory plans are “simply not realisable”?

Sixth, is it not the case that Mr Clegg likes the trappings of office – but not the responsibilities that this entails? He can’t have it both ways.

I appreciate that the Lib Dems need to assert their own identity and independence, and this pre-election hiatus was never going to be straightforward, but they need to do so in a responsible manner.

If they don’t, Nick Clegg’s party will be at even greater risk of being overwhelmed by the tide of political opinion next May. Is that what he wants?

GEORGE Osborne’s Autumn Statement certainly delivered one objective – the Chancellor created the impression that commuters will enjoy new state-of-the-art trains in Yorkshire.

“And I can confirm today that we will tender for new franchises for Northern Rail and the Trans-Pennine Express – replacing the ancient and unpopular Pacer carriages with new and modern trains,” he said. Don’t bet on it. The Treasury’s documents say the Government will only “encourage bidders” to replace the outdated trains with modern rolling stock. Like many others, I await clarification from the Chancellor on whether he is seriously committed to his “Northern Powerhouse” or whether it is little more than electoral window-dressing.

VETERAN Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman clearly does not have much time for coalition education ministers. He told the Commons on Monday: “I have never seen a bunch of numpties with such a lack of vision and passion.”

There then followed a brief discussion about whether the word ‘numpty’ – “someone who by speech or action demonstrates a lack of knowledge or misconception of a particular subject” – was Parliamentary language or not.

I thought the word sums up the Labour front bench – and its failure to embrace social mobility, and the value of apprenticeships, during its policy-free party conference.

BARRY Sheerman is not the only Yorkshire MP whose terminology has been questioned – Shipley MP Philip Davies found himself in hot water for saying that Britain will not regain control of its borders until it leaves the European Union. “Why is it so difficult for the Government to say what is merely a statement of the bleeding obvious?” he asked. When this was ruled out of order, he said rather nimbly that he had meant to use the phrase “blinding obvious”. By then, he had made his point. He had tabled an urgent question in the Commons that a Minister had to answer within minutes of David Cameron completing his speech on immigration at a JCB factory in Staffordshire.

My grievance is that the Prime Minister set out his policy vision on a factory floor rather than on the floor of the House of Commons where he could have been held to account. That would have been the statesmanlike approach.

QUESTION of the week in the Commons came from Tory grandee Sir Edward Garnier who was clearly irritated by Yvette Cooper’s bluster over the Government’s counter-terrorism measures. He asked the Shadow Home Secretary: “What are the right hon. Lady’s suggestions, therefore?”

The answer from the Pontefract and Castleford MP? More hand-wringing before Ms Cooper requested the Tory to “stop intervening”.

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk