David Laws may have resigned from the Coalition’s cabinet two years ago, but (after an initial period of wondering whether to quit politics altogether) his influence hasn’t actually waned much. His interests range across economic and social policy: though he was the party’s education spokesman in opposition, he was a natural fit as chief secretary to the treasury in government, however briefly. He is widely expected to make a return to government at the next reshuffle, and has given a number of media interviews in the past few weeks.
He spoke to the Telegraph (the paper whose revelations brought him down) last month, controversially proposing to lower state spending to 35% of GDP. Last week, The Independent interviewed him, and he used the opportunity to reject party critics’ claim that he’s simply a Tory-in-disguise:
“I am not a Tory because I am a small ‘l’ liberal. Which means liberal economically – which I think most Conservatives are – but also liberal in terms of personal life … most importantly, a social as well as economic liberal, believing that the state has to intervene to ensure not only protection for people in the bottom of society, but that there are strong ladders for those people to do better and improve themselves.”
He hammers home the differences. Where Tories promised inheritance tax cuts for millionaires, Lib Dems wanted the low paid to be lifted out of income tax. The right’s assertion that free-market economics automatically lead to more socially mobile societies has failed. “We are in danger, in Western nations, of getting a sort of caste-like society where it’s actually more difficult than it was a number of decades ago for people who are born into disadvantaged backgrounds and households to do well in life. We have got to challenge [that] even in these tough economic times.”
And this week, he’s the cover star of The House magazine, interviewed by Sam Macrory. Here’s a couple of excerpts…
Laws on the Coalition:
Not surprisingly, he is concerned by the rows over reforming the House of Lords. “This is an important part of the coalition agreement. It wasn’t actually a controversial part of the coalition agreement – it’s something, by my recollection, that we agreed in a few minutes of discussion”, recalls Laws, a negotiator in the coalition talks. “I think it’s very important in terms of honouring the coalition agreement and both parties so far have signed up and delivered all of the aspects of the coalition agreement and it’s therefore really important we continue to do that.” … He rejects the idea of withdrawing Lib Dem ministers before the election. “That would look pretty unconvincing to the public… Are they really going to have a different view of the Lib Dems and think of us as a more independent party just because we sort of bailed out of the plane just before it comes into land? I kind of doubt it.”
Laws on party funding reform:
Laws admits there have been “ups and downs” during cross-party talks, but is “optimistic” that an agreement will be struck. “We’d hope that we might be able to complete that by round about now. I suspect it might take a little bit longer than that, but I think the case for reforming party funding is still very, very strong. When I consider those issues and compare them with over challenges like getting party agreement on Lords reform, this feels like the kind of thing that a few sensible people ought to be able to figure out in a dark room in a matter of hours. … I don’t think the public would understand if we said, you know, there’s this great big challenge, it is really important to clean up party funding, we all said that we would do that in our manifestos, now we’re sort of agreeing something and not doing anything about it.”
Laws on the economy and ‘Plan A’:
“When people talk about the government’s economic strategy and sticking with Plan A, they’re right. That’s exactly what we need to do, but Plan A was not just a plan to control public expenditure tightly and to cut real public spending, Plan A was also a plan that relied upon growth”, Laws argues, before hinting that Plan A needs a tweak or two.“It’s clear that there needs to be more action on monetary policy, more radical both in terms of scale and in terms of the radical nature of those monetary interventions, and the government needs to keep on doing what it is already doing which is to look at other ways which it can boost investment spending.”
So if not a Plan B, then is this a Plan A+? Laws resists the suggestion. “I kind of hesitate to invent an alphabet soup of different options for the economy. To me it’s not A+, B, B- or C, it is Plan A. Plan A is a plan for spending control and growth. The spending control bit is coming in absolutely fine, so we need to just go on delivering that. The growth bit is more challenging, almost solely because of the situation in the eurozone and so we and the Bank of England need to take more aggressive action to deliver plan A.”
Laws on returning to government:
Laws smiles. “I’m using the Winston Churchill response. Commenting on invitations that haven’t been made, accepting or rejecting them, is bad manners”.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.