This year more than ever, Nick Clegg is looking around for a policy to ensure he does not, to quote Nye Bevan, go naked into the conference hall when his party meets in Brighton. He does not have Lords reform to rouse his party ranks, the grassroots are nervous about the threat of an extra £10 billion in welfare cuts and there’s a row brewing on airports that will at some stage move from grumpy sniping to something rather uglier. So in his interview with the Guardian, the Liberal Democrat leader decided to talk tax, calling for a ‘time-limited contribution’ from the wealthiest in society.
That this was a pre-conference salvo to show Lib Dem members whose ‘side’ the party leadership is on was underlined by Baroness Kramer’s confused interview on the Today programme. ‘I heard the plan for the first time, just as you did, from Nick,’ she said. She added that she was looking forward to learning about the detail on this. This is odd, because Kramer is the party’s Treasury spokeswoman in the House of Lords. She doesn’t seem to have been privy to any discussions about the development of this policy, and she seems to have received precious little briefing before going on air.
As I reported last week, the party has also been making a renewed push for a full introduction of the mansion tax. Its conference theme is ‘fairer tax in tough times’, and both Clegg and Kramer repeatedly used the word ‘cohesion’ in their interviews. They were talking about social cohesion, but I suspect the main purpose of this announcement is to encourage cohesion within the Lib Dems and to encourage members to believe that their party would do so much more to make society fair if it weren’t for those nasty Tories. Look again at the Guardian interview, and you’ll note that Clegg talks more about what he sees as Tory intractability on tax than any specific detail of this tax plan:
‘It is not somewhere where I have found it very easy to make progress with the Conservatives, because they are not quite as keen as I am in making sure that when we say the broadest shoulders have to take the greatest strain that does sometimes mean taking pretty difficult decisions which some people will not like in society. I personally think that, if we are now moving into a longer phase of fiscal restraint, that kind of caution just doesn’t make sense any more. We are moving into a different world where everybody, at the top of society as well as the bottom, knows there is less money to go round.’
This policy will grow legs in so far as it will walk up on to the podium in Brighton and give the Tories a good bashing. If Clegg’s words in this interview are laced with poison, wait until you hear Tim Farron using the proposal to rally the troops. But whether this wealth tax catches the train back to Westminster with the Lib Dems isn’t a certainty by any means.