Clegg set to face tough time over health, schools and spending cuts

As Nick Clegg prepares to address delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference today, he faces discord over health, Trident, schools and spending cuts.

As Nick Clegg prepares to address delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool today, he faces discord among backbenchers and grandees over “the dictatorship” of ministers over the party, the health white paper, Trident, the lack of fairness of the massive cuts he’s implementing and a motion this morning criticising the coalition’s free schools and academies policies.

Baroness Williams, speaking on the Today programme, suggested the leadership was sacrificing too much on health policy and Trident renewal, saying:

“How much do you sacrifice to get that [influence]? From the point of view of the country I was probably wrong in thinking the coalition was a bad idea. I’m profoundly worried about the white paper on health, we have a health system which is notably improved, the outcomes have come right up to the best European standards…

“There’s no question that the attempt to renew Trident on a like-for-like basis would be profoundly contradictory to what President Obama and the American administration is trying to do in terms of getting multilateral disarmament going.”

VAT rebel Mike Hancock has also hit out at the leadership. In an open letter to Mr Clegg, he writes:

“We must not have dictatorship of the party by 20 Lib Dem ministers.”

Earlier, in an interview with the BBC, the Portsmouth South MP said:

Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and Vince Cable were present in the room, but not one of them told us that Osborne was taking four billion out of welfare. They knew and they should have told us. If a coalition is going to work it has to be an equal partnership of Tory and Lib Dem backbenchers as well as the party nationally having some insight into these matters.”

“I don’t want to be told by Nick Clegg that this is how it’s going to be. I want to be asked by Nick Clegg, is that what you want to see happen?”

He added:

“Nick Clegg said that he talked to everyone about it and they all said it was the right thing to do. The one group of people that he didn’t talk to was the parliamentary party.”

Former MP Dr Evan Harris, meanwhile, echoed his comments on the unfairness of the government’s cuts agenda (reported by Left Foot Forward yesterday). In a column on Comment is free, he writes:

… [Nick Clegg] has made one major error: the talk of “fair cuts”. Cuts in public spending on the scale needed (or at least envisaged) are never going to be truly fair or progressive. That is an economic and statistical fact of life. It would be under Labour as well. It is clear that Lib Dem influence will make the cuts fairer than they would be under a Tory government, but it is fundamentally wrong to claim they will be fair.

Going down that path leads to the deputy prime minister disputing an Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of the budget with an article headlined, “Fairness should never be a numbers game”. There must be objective measures of fairness if politicians are to be accountable. If you don’t want a statistical analysis of the budget then don’t make statistical claims of fairness for it.

The red book claims that the budget was progressive in that it hit the rich more than the poor. It did not. Given that it included £11bn of welfare cuts, it was an achievement that it was not any more regressive than it was…

Of greater concern for the Lib Dem leader, however, may be a motion on education to be debated on the conference floor – with questions certain to be asked about the complete u-turns of senior party figures over free schools. Ten days before the election, childrens minister Sarah Teather described the Conservative Party’s free schools policy as a “shambles”, adding:

“Unless you give local authorities that power to plan and unless you actually make sure that there is money available… it’s just a gimmick.”

While David Laws, Lib Dem education spokesman in opposition, described the plans as “deeply flawed” and “impossible to justify”. He said:

“The Tories’ schools plans are deeply flawed both in terms of money and on the curriculum. Michael Gove’s plan to cut the education budget means his ability to establish new schools will inevitably depend on raiding the budgets of existing schools. On the curriculum, Conservative plans are in even more of an incoherent muddle.

“Michael Gove plans to impose an absurdly detailed curriculum on most state-funded schools, while allowing free schools to adopt a pick-and-mix curriculum – even if this means dropping core subjects such as British history and modern languages. It is impossible to justify in any logical way a system which imposes such centralized uniformity on 23,500 schools while allowing a small minority to teach whatever they like at the taxpayers’ expense.”

And in their response to the Tories’ education manifesto, the Lib Dems said:

“VERDICT: Unfair. The Conservatives’ approach to school reform is completely muddled, expensive, and the idea that simply allowing new providers to open schools will raise standards across the country is naive.”

Left Foot Forward has critiqued Conservative and Liberal Democrat education policy extensively, both before and after the election, recently pointing out that the pupil premium may come from the Sure Start and Educational Maintenance Allowance, and that “deep cuts” may be required to fund free schools.

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