Nick Clegg upbeat at start of tour to shore up Lib Dem votes
It's a busy Friday flight from London to Newquay. Busy given that it's mid-January and the appetite for a weekend in one of the UK's leading resorts at this time of year is usually fairly modest. It is 2C and not much warmer in the Westcountry.
Passenger numbers have been swelled, though, by Nick Clegg and his entourage, which, at the Deputy Prime Minister's invitation, includes the Western Morning News. The newspaper joined the travelling party of eight on the first leg of a periodic tour of the country that will see the Liberal Democrat leader visit the constituencies of all 57 of his party's MPs. Neatly, the party's footprint includes Land's End and John O'Groats.
If the party does have a powerbase, and it's certainly not as pronounced as Labour in the north and the Conservatives in the shires, it is the far South West. Boasting three MPs in Cornwall (and all six seats before the 2010 election), this is a part of the world where the Lib Dems have had boots on the ground for many years. So it will be fascinating to see how the architect of the Lib Dems 2.0 (the one that power shares in government, rather than chuntering at the sidelines) is perceived halfway through the coalition project.
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The line from central office is the Lib Dems are delivering manifesto promises they could only dream of in opposition. A tax cut for the low-paid thanks to raising the income tax threshold and more cash to schools with the most poor children (the Pupil Premium) are the achievements they are most anxious to champion. However, breaking a manifesto promise by hiking tuition fees to £27,000 for a three-year degree and, latterly, slashing the welfare bill has been damaging.
Mr Clegg arrives, trendy weekend bag over his shoulder rather than clutching a ministerial briefcase, in amiable mood. He's just had a ding-dong on local radio in Sheffield, where he is MP, over the local Labour authority closing the sports stadium where Olympic champion Jessica Ennis trained as a youngster. He doesn't go into detail, but one imagines local government blames Westminster and vice-versa.
"Happy new year," he offers, by way of introduction. "Though I'm never sure when you're supposed to stop saying that."
The Deputy Prime Minister seems to be relishing the visit and a foray beyond the parliamentary bubble. He even suggests the party may have turned a corner.
Yes, they took a pasting in a round of Westminster by-elections, but those are areas where they have little presence. Elsewhere, at local level, they're winning elections. "Morale is much better," he says. He doesn't reference the recorded tuition fees apology that, bafflingly, entered the pop charts after being set to music, but that undoubtedly improved his public image – a whiff of the pre-coalition "Clegg-mania" that shot him to prominence in 2010.
Just before landing in Cornwall, the WMN questions Mr Clegg on a number of pressing matters in the Westcountry – for his party and the population. His replies follow...
Flooding cut Devon and Cornwall off from the main rail network on three occasions before Christmas, which many have said is unacceptable in the 21st century. MPs have also complained the South West is a poor relation on transport spending, pointing to HS2 high-speed rail heading north while lines west of Bristol won’t even be electrified. Mr Clegg responded the Government has invested in dualling the A30 near Bodmin and that a £4 billion Treasury guarantee scheme could underwrite new transport projects if the region puts forward plans.
“The spectre of the flooding of the train line begs big questions about how we protect that vital umbilical transport link between Cornwall and the rest of the country. I think it’s very important Network Rail follow up its commitment to looking at the 40-odd vulnerable pinch points which the recent floodings have just highlighted once again. I can’t second guess what Network Rail is going to come up with, but I can certainly confirm in government we are working very closely with them to try to make sure within available funds we can do more to protect the main railway line from being submerged in flood water.”
Was it unacceptable the region was cut off? “I totally accept we need to do more to prevent that from happening.”
Away from rails, at Blisland village hall near Bodmin moor Mr Clegg saw an exhibition of the new-look 2.8mile stretch of the A30 at Temple, a notorious bottleneck in the summer months in particular. Chancellor George Osborne backed the £30 million scheme in the autumn spending statement, and shovels are expected in the ground in the next year: music to the ears of ministers. After more glad-handing and a second round of media interviews, the convoy heads into the heart of Cornwall’s clay country and a public question-and-answer session at Branel school in St Stephen, near St Austell ¬– another state-of-the-art education building.
Around 100 attend – one member of the audience has come from Manchester, more than 300 miles away – and there appears to be a preponderance of Lib Dem voters. Not that that means it’s a series of free hits. Anything but. The first question is from a man whose partner has been tested three times to remain on Disability Living Allowance even though she has an incurable, degenerative illness. It’s a politician’s nightmare: trying a justify a policy as controversial as welfare reform when confronted with a seemingly unjust consequence. But Mr Clegg manages to underline the need for fairness with state handouts without prompting a cacophony of boos. Question two is only marginally more straight-forward: what makes the Lib Dems anything more than “Tory-lite”. See earlier answer to the WMN for a rough approximation of his response.
The session could have gone on for hours. A forest of arms was raised to ask questions. But after defending the cull of badgers to prevent the spread of tuberculosis in cattle, admitting the promise of scrapping tuition fees was undeliverable and labelling Jimmy Saville a “monstrous predator” (news was breaking of his litany of crimes), it was off again. A dinner with members in Exeter awaited.
The Government has proposed a minimum price for alcohol to outlaw ultra-cheap, high-strength booze that many blame for fuelling antisocial behaviour in town centres. Residents in Newquay and many other holiday resorts have long complained about the effects of binge drinking. Mr Clegg, though, is not entirely comfortable with the policy – though he has backed it.
“It took me some time to be persuaded it was the right way. As an old-fashioned liberal I’m wary of fixing prices like that. But there has been an awful lot of good research at Sheffield University that has shown that we have massive antisocial behaviour problems with alcohol in our town and city centres, particularly on a Saturday and Friday night. And there is a price dimension to that. So with some hesitation, I’ve said let’s proceed with this along the lines of what we have agreed in the coalition government. I can understand people have to grapple with it. But you can’t ignore this problem, it’s too much of a blight for too many of our communities.”
Planning minister Nick Boles last week applied “moral pressure” to opponents of house-building on open countryside, arguing they had to think of the cramped, greenery-free conditions they would be leaving their grandchildren to live in. Mr Clegg said it was right to have the debate, particularly in an area such as the South West.
“He’s lifting the lid on a wider dilemma. We just do not have enough affordable homes in this country for the many particularly young people who are struggling. You can see it with the vice-like pressure of high property prices here in the South West. People with young families – many on low and middle incomes, you find for various reasons very exceptional to Cornwall and the whole second home market find themselves really struggling to get their feet on the first rung of the property ladder. We do need to have a debate at a time when we are not building houses. We haven’t built enough houses for years. I don’t want to stick our head in the sand, as many generations of politicians have.”
Some have warned the tuition fees hike is a Lib Dem betrayal the party will never recover from, despite the apology. Mr Clegg said people who listen to “the facts” are willing to forgive, arguing “fair-minded” people will acknowledge it was the Lib Dems that made the policy as “fair as it possibly could” – pay nothing if graduates earn less than £21,000 and part-time students no longer paying fees upfront.
“I don’t expect them to get out the bunting. But I’d hope they’d at least accept the policy was the best we could do in the highly constrained circumstances. The Liberal Democrats didn’t win the election. I lead a party with 8 per cent of MPs in the Commons. Both the Conservatives and Labour before the elections said they wanted fees to go up. So I wasn’t in a position to deliver what we would have done if we had been on our own.”
But aren’t students from working-class backgrounds fearful of the debt they are left with after university?
“That is true, actually. From my experience in my Sheffield constituency I think it is often the parent that is more antagonistic to the idea than youngsters, for very good reason. For deep-seated, cultural aversion to the idea you have to carry a bill round with you. I hope that over time we can explain to them it isn’t a debt at all. It doesn’t prevent you taking out a mortgage. You only pay when you can pay. A debt is something you have to pay off. With this, if you don’t work you don’t pay a thing, and if you’re on low incomes you pay nothing. If you can’t pay it off in your working life, you don’t have to. It’s so different to the traditional concept of debt – but I accept we have a massive challenge to explain that to people.”
The coalition Government’s Mid-Term Review confirmed a free vote in parliament on repealing the ban on hunting had “yet” to happen, despite a promise in their joint agreement. Mr Clegg said this is a Tory policy.
“It’s entirely up to them if they call it. I would vote to maintain the ban as it is. I strongly suspect, as they seem to acknowledge themselves, they haven’t got the slightest hope of changing the law at the moment.”
Proposals to allow gay marriage have angered a number traditionalists.
“When we finally get the legislation passed, I think people will say ‘what on earth was all the fuss about’. We have civil partnerships. We’re not saying to any church they have to marry a gay couple if they don’t want to. We’re just saying if you believe marriage is about love, which I do, and is about two individuals, regardless of their gender, sex or orientation, who just want to show life-long commitment to one another, why on earth don’t we celebrate that?” Mr Clegg said it was a “real pity” some were using “quite breathless language” to condemn “a perfectly reasonable, well-intentioned move to celebrate commitment, celebrate love in relationships”.
Mr Clegg backs much of Lord Heseltine’s vision for giving many responsibilities held by Whitehall to regions, including the Westcountry, saying the Government will go “further and we will go faster” than it has so far. Though handing powers just to big cities would be “unacceptable”, he added.
“I was just talking to (Cornwall councillor) Bert Biscoe today, a great Cornwall champion, who is working with others to promote the idea of ‘Cornish deal’ analogous to the ‘city deals’ granted to the eight biggest cities outside the South East. I said to him this afternoon, “I very much hope the template I’ve established on city deals – where you take lumps of money and great swathes of power from Whitehall – shouldn’t be an urban phenomenon. I think that should be the rule of thumb.” In 10, 15 years times we’ll be able look back and say ‘wasn’t that odd when everything was decided in Whitehall’.”