PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on wasteful public spending

by Stephen Tall on October 29, 2008

This being Prime Minister’s Questions, the burning topic of the day – should Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross be publicly flogged for crimes against Andrew Sachs – was not tackled. But, this being PMQs, there was plenty of other puerile posturing and manipulative outrage on display.

The Tories’ David Cameron returned to the questioning that brought him no joy last week: demanding that Gordon Brown accept that ‘boom and bust’, far from being vanquished, is alive and well in UK plc today. The rest of his questions got bogged down in trying to prove the Prime Minister has abandoned his infamous fiscal rules.

Mr Cameron is right about this, but it’s poor strategy for three reasons: (i) the Tory leader just doesn’t sound convincing when talking about the details of economic policy; (ii) the Prime Minister (rather as Tony Blair did after 9/11) is quite content, at least for the moment, to say extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures; and (iii) because, as The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson argues here, the Tory leader is failing to project any form of Tory narrative that might connect with voters. More than usual, Mr Cameron is adopting slick debating society schtick during these recession reality PMQs. It worked once; it’s not working now.

By contrast, the Lib Dems’ Nick Clegg used his two salvoes to make two big, connected points: that there are billions of government spending that not only can be cut, but should be cut (eg, ID cards and the surveillance database); and that the best and fairest way to stimulate the economy is to cut taxes for low- and middle-income earners. In doing so, Nick gains high praise from Fraser (again):

Finally, the right line from Prime Minister’s Questions – and it’s one that Gordon Brown will fear the most. “What people need now is more money in their pockets. He could deliver big tax cuts for people who desperately need help”. It was from Nick Clegg. You can argue – as I do – that the Liberal Democrats’ proposed tax cut is paltry. But the rhetoric and positioning is precisely right. It’s a binary distinction: Brown trusts the state, and wants to spend his way out of a recession. Clegg is saying he trusts the British public, and wants to stimulate the economy by letting them keep more of their own money. When Brown retorted that the “Liberal Party” would somehow damage the British economy by taking out £20 billion of spending, it sounded irrelevant. Clegg has astutely judged that the Tories are missing an open goal because of internal struggles with the concept of tax cuts. It’s a no-brainer in the current environment – has anyone see Barack Obama’s website recently? Obama’s figures, like Clegg’s, are paltry if you add them up. But the positioning is right. Clegg is showing the Tories how to do it.

Anyway, you can judge for yourselves, below, via YouTube and the Hansard transcript:

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): As we heard earlier, the Prime Minister does not seem to distinguish between good public spending and bad public spending. At a time when every penny of public money needs to be spent wisely, he wants to waste £13 billion on an NHS computer system that does not work, £12 billion on a surveillance database, which will spy on everybody in the country, and billions more on ID cards. He could redirect all that money to the things that people really need in a recession: homes for hard-pressed families; good child care, so that people can go out to look for work; and training for people who have lost their jobs. At a time when all British families have to rethink their spending plans, is it not time for him to rethink his?

The Prime Minister: I do not recognise the figures that the right hon. Gentleman gives us. The only figure that matters in this debate is that the Liberal party wants to cut £20 billion out of public spending. That would be the wrong course for this country.

Mr. Clegg: This country is in much worse shape than I feared if it has a Prime Minister who cannot tell the difference between redirecting and cutting public money. Grandiose plans for public spending might help in the long term, but low and middle-income families need more money in their pockets right now. Why does he not have the courage to close the multi-billion pound tax loopholes that benefit only the wealthy? That way, he could deliver big tax cuts for people who desperately need help. It would not require extra Government borrowing, it is fair and it would be good for the economy. Why will not the Prime Minister give people on ordinary incomes some of their money back?

The Prime Minister: We have been closing tax loopholes in every Budget for the past 11 years. We are putting an additional amount of money into the economy: 22 million people are getting a tax cut of £120, the winter allowance will be £250 for over-60s and £400 for over-80s, and we are helping low-income families with their fuel bills. The right hon. Gentleman cannot wish away the policy that he announced at his conference: to cut public spending by £20 billion. That is the wrong policy for this country at this time.