17 Dec 2012

Clegg takes on Tory right, but defends welfare reforms

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg defends the Liberal Democrats’ record in government, saying they ensured that welfare cuts were less “draconian” than the Conservatives wanted.

The Liberal Democrat leader said in a speech that welfare reform was necessary, but his party could take credit that cuts of only £3.8bn were announced in the chancellor’s autumn statement, rather than the £10bn package the Tories had wanted.

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.

“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.”

Despite his wish to differentiate the Lib Dems from their Tory coalition partners, Mr Clegg said that without reform there was a risk of a “total collapse” in public support for the principle of welfare.

‘Party of welfare reform’

He described the Lib Dems as “the party of welfare reform – sensible, centre-ground welfare reform”.

Speaking on the eve of the fifth anniversary of his election as Lib Dem leader, he said better-off pensioners should lose some of their benefits – on the basis that “money should not be paid to those who do not need it”.

This could mean means testing eligibility for the winter fuel allowance, free bus travel, prescriptions and television licences.

But Prime Minister David Cameron is committed to keeping these universal benefits in place until 2015.

Mr Clegg and his party are enduring a tough time at the moment, with a series of weekend opinion polls showing them slumping to fourth place behind Ukip, their support down to just 8 or 9 per cent.

‘Curtain will probably fall’

Mr Clegg’s former director of strategy, Richard Reeves, today suggested in an article in the Guardian that the “curtain will probably fall” on the coalition before the next election if the Lib Dems fail to boost their support.

The deputy prime minister said in his speech that his party had acquired a “harder edge” in government, but argued that the alternative was “a retreat to the comfort and relative irrelevance of opposition”.

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. Of course. 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.”

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman said: “Nick Clegg will try every trick in the book to distance himself from the record of his government.

“But, as ever with the Lib Dems, they say one thing whilst doing another – resulting in a record of economic failure, trebled tuition fees, nurses cut, police axed and millions paying more while millionaires get a tax cut.