Nick Clegg gave his monthly press conference today. It might kindly be described as ‘wide-ranging’, which is often code in journalese for ‘not offering very much’. But the Deputy Prime Minister did offer a few nuggets which are worth exploring.
The first is that he was very keen to put his name on the list of figures at the top of the Coalition trumpeting the improved economic circumstances. ‘I am not going to use that phrase,’ he said, when asked whether he could see ‘green shoots’ in the economy. ‘I’m happy to use any other euphemism: the clouds are lifting… the sinews of the British economy are starting to strengthen.’ A victory for muscular liberalism, clearly.
But in his opening remarks, the Deputy Prime Minister also said that ‘we need to have a debate as we move forward: what kind of economy we need to see’ emerging in the future. He added:
‘I want to see a British economy which is not only fiscally sustainable and secure, but is sustainable in a green sense.’
Does this mean that Clegg wants more differentiation between the two parties on the economy – which is an area where ministers have remained united? The Deputy Prime Minister told us that they would stay united on the need to tackle the deficit, but that at next week’s Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, party members would discuss some of the ‘significant differences’, including his own motion on the economy (a motion that has annoyed the left-leaning faction in his party, the Social Liberal Forum). He added:
‘I strongly suspect as we all move forward beyond the next election to finish the job to balance the books to fill the black hole of getting rid of the structural deficit, that we will put forward proposals for instance for taxes to help in that task which the Conservatives will not agree to.’
So there is very little desire to start clawing at the Tories on the economy just yet. That will come when the two parties start making their general election pitches (although the Tories are already well ahead of Clegg’s party on this). But Clegg was clearly very keen to take a few chunks out of Labour. In almost the same breath as saying that he gets on equally well with Ed Miliband and David Cameron (because they apparently share the same sense of humour and have young children), Clegg warned that ‘Labour is perilously close to the point where people just do not know what they stand for’. Perhaps this is a hint that, like last autumn, he will want to emphasise the danger posed by Ed Balls, rather than his squabbles with the Tories. But as I explained recently in the magazine, he will also be preparing to respond to a few kites flying out of CCHQ in the next few weeks too.
As for Chris Huhne’s furious piece in the Guardian this morning, Clegg tried as many times as possible to disagree with the former Energy Secretary. He said: ‘I’m not here as Chris’s literary agent’ and ‘I’m not Chris’s keeper.’ So that’s clear, then.