Alex Stevenson's Rules of the game blog

The Lib Dem lead balloon strategy

Back in 2010, before New Labour's final Budget, Vince Cable presented journalists with two graphs. One showed the Conservatives' anticipated approach to fixing the deficit: a rapid, and potentially painful, fiscal consolidation that looked rather unpleasant. The other showed Labour's alternative - slower, and therefore not so grim, but possibly less credible with the markets. At the time Cable, then the Liberal Democrats' Treasury spokesperson, held an essential agnostic position: his party would plump for something vague in the middle, he suggested.

Actually, they didn't. Going into government with David Cameron and George Osborne meant signing up to the Tories' more brutal approach to austerity. The Lib Dems have been complicit in adopting the rushed kind of cuts driven by the Conservatives' ideology. When contrasted with Cable's now-forgotten indifference, this is in some ways an even bigger broken promise than tuition fees. Which is why, five years down the line, we have to treat the Lib Dems' approach to the deficit for 2015-20 with some suspicion.

Today the party is outlining its plans in some detail. It is well ahead of the other parties in making clear its intentions. And these very specific proposals are unrecognisable from the vague suggestions offered by Cable in early 2010. Now the Lib Dems have a very clear plan, and they want you to pay attention.

More of us are sitting up and taking notes, it's true, because we know there is a strong chance the party's plans will feature in the coalition negotiations. They got the income tax threshold raised, whatever the Tories may now say to take credit for it. And the Lib Dems are already in government, so they are starting from a clearly established position, not making up policy on the hoof. It gives them more attention, but it also hobbles them.

The problem for Nick Clegg is his hands are tied by the last government. When the deputy prime minister says the plan is to "finish the job", he fails to accept any responsibility for not getting the job done on time in the first place. By now the electorate should have been basking in a recovering economy. The indicators may be improving, but voters haven't noticed it just yet. This is unlikely to make them very receptive to accepting the need for more austerity - as the Lib Dems and Conservatives have been forced to - by offering joint spending plans to 2017/18.

On the campaign trail in 2010

The result is an offering today which will not win over many voters. The Liberals calculate they need to come up with another £30 billion of cuts. They have ideas about how to achieve this, too: a whopping big banking levy (because the City is just as much to blame now for the crash as it was in 2008), stripping wealthy pensioners of payouts like free TV licences, and finally pushing through the much-vaunted mansion tax. They'll need more, but that's a decent start.

Yet already they've identified a long list of people who are now set to lose out. So to boost their 'we're doing this fairly' credentials, the proposal is to tweak the spending cuts / tax rises ration from 80:20 to something like 75:25. This is something the Tories have shied away from, because any kind of tax hike is in their view electorally toxic. The Lib Dems seem to think they can batter suspicious voters into agreement by explaining how reasonable they're being.

Quibbling over the balance of cuts when the job was supposed to have been finished by now anyway does not look much like bread and honey. And unfortunately, because these cuts will immediately follow the election, they will dominate the headlines. The much vaguer plans for what the party would do after 2017/18 simply can't compete.

In a growing economy, aides to Clegg say, the Lib Dem instinct is to start restoring public spending levels wherever possible. That is nice. It is like saying to a man who's just had his leg chopped off that the intention is very much to glue his knee back on in several years' time. Surely this is not going to go down well on the doorstep.

But this is what Lib Dem campaigners are being given to work with. It must be especially galling for them because, after years of a Lib Dem wipeout being the universally expected outcome of their adventure in government, commentators have finally begun suggesting they could keep most of their seats. Achieving that needs more than just the incumbency factor - but the proposals outlined today aren't going to add much.

"When balancing the books, we will stay the course - it is for other parties to lurch left and right," Danny Alexander says. How reassuring to the markets - and how unattractive to many voters - his promise will be.

UPDATE: Roll on the tax rises

One thing the party has shied away from promoting is its preference for shifting the balance of austerity from spending cuts to tax rises. What is revealing here is how this has been presented. Instead of declaring the £30 billion of cuts still to come should be 60:40 on cuts/tax hikes, the Lib Dems have instead suggested the total cuts package from 2010 onwards will shift from 80:20 to 75:25.

This isn't much of a difference, really – but highlighting 60:40 is really distinctive and, actually, is by far the most interesting point to emerge from today's announcement. Why wasn't it placed front and centre? It suggests the party is pulling its punches against the Conservatives – but maybe activists can embrace the hidden meaning of the figures and point out that the Lib Dems are becoming the party of tax rises. Even if their politicians are wary of admitting it.

How embarrassing is the BBC's Inside The Commons for parliament's bigwigs?

It was an extraordinary gamble for a parliament shamed by the expenses scandal – so has letting the TV cameras into the Commons left MPs looking even worse than they did before?

Michael Cockerell and his team of cameramen have been omnipresent for the last year or so. The level of access they've had is unprecedented, because the Commons has always been touchy about any kind of scrutiny. When I made a documentary for BBC Radio 4 last year the rigmarole of getting permission to record in the main building – which, as officials pointed out, is still a royal palace – was truly astonishing. So it's no surprise to learn it took Cockerell six years to get the green light for this project.

The officials running parliament said 'yes' because they're determined to show the Commons is changing. They may work in a crumbling, Victorian mock Gothic Palace – and many of its important people wear what look like something out of a Harry Potter movie – but they are up-to-date, honest.

This week's episode portrayed parliament for what it is: its reputation as battered as the fabric of the building is in tatters. Some MPs, like the likeable stars Sarah Champion and Charlotte Leslie, are all for shaking up the fusty traditions that make parliament what it is; others seem like living embodiments of Westminster's antiquated way of doing things. It is in revealing the Commons' most enduring habits that Cockerell comes closest to making parliament look bad.

Here's a few of the most misleading parts of the programme that some in the Palace might feel were a bit harsh:

  • Sir Robert Rogers taking snuff outside the Commons chamber and declaring "my goodness, that's invigorating!" This is a centuries-old tradition that Sir Robert has long highlighted as one of the idiosyncrasies of his job. Putting it in the programme's intro was attention-grabbing, but also cringeworthy.
  • Labour MP Steve Rotherham complaining about people in parliament being rude when he held open doors for others. "Not one of them said 'ta, thanks very much'," he moaned. This is simply not true. Everyone in parliament is polite – just like everywhere else.
  • Conservative MP Andrew Percy isn't impressed with the geographical partisanship of the members' tea room. "When I first came here I sat in the wrong place," he says. "Somebody said 'that's a Labour table'. And I thought, there's all these old traditions. You go in a coffee shop and you sit where you want, don't you'?" Is this something to whinge about? Or isn't it just like any sixth form common room, where people sit in the same place?

These minor glitches are as nothing to the series' overarching narrative, though. This was hinted at in the story of the clerk, Sir Robert Rogers. Episode one finishes with the moving applause given to Sir Robert by MPs when Speaker John Bercow – who was virtually absent from the programme – confirmed to the Commons his plan to take early retirement.

We all know what followed: a botched recruitment process to find a new clerk that left Bercow damaged and abashed. How Cockerell treats the story of MPs' revolt against the Speaker's plans to split Sir Robert's job into two will have a real impact on the public's perception of parliament.

The Speaker, having watched last night's programme, must have felt qualms about how this story would play out in the three remaining episodes. It is entirely possible that, when viewed in its entirely, Inside The Commons will reveal our parliament to be a nobler, better place than many of the public thought it to be – while Bercow will end up looking diminished.

David Cameron declares war on Scotland

The independence referendum may have been lost, but the SNP continues to slowly advance towards its ultimate goal. David Cameron's partisan selfishness is slowly driving Britain apart.

That the SNP's spectacular goading is behind the Conservatives' openly self-centred manoeuvring should not be in doubt. When yesterday's draft bill on Scottish devolution was published, first minister Nicola Sturgeon made clear her party was prepared to break its longstanding principle that it steers clear of any English-only matters. It was a brilliant move that has flushed the Tories' plottings into the open.

"If there was a vote in the House of Commons to repeal the privatisation of the health service that has been seen in England, we would vote for that because that would help to protect Scotland's budget," she told the BBC. This shift matters because, while the SNP only have six MPs right now, they are very likely to have at least 20 more after 2015.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have reason to be worried. At the weekend a Panelbase poll for the Sunday Times put the SNP on 41%, down four points, with Labour up three points to 31%. That represented a narrowing of the gap for Ed Miliband's Scottish MPs, who are moping and moaning around Westminster that they are all doomed. Even those with majorities of over 14,000 find themselves deeply pessimistic about their prospects. And the latest poll won't have helped: an Ipsos Mori poll for STV, the latest to come out, puts Labour behind by 28 points, suggesting the SNP could take 55 of Scotland's 59 seats.

Turning this promise into reality requires Sturgeon to nullify the main warning now being hurled at wavering voters: that if they back the SNP in May they'll end up with a Tory government. Hence her promise to intervene in English-only affairs to protect the kinds of things, like the NHS, that Labour MPs would be voting on anyway. It was politically necessary, but also very deftly done because it represents a new threat to the PM's ability to continue in Downing Street after May 7th. No wonder he responded so robustly – and in doing so flushed the Tories' own machinations into the open.

Sturgeon's plan, Cameron has declared, would be "wrong".

"It's only fair as a Westminster member of parliament I don't have the ability to vote on Scottish health or education or housing," he said.

"I don't see why in future SNP members or indeed Labour, Liberal or Conservatives members or Alex Salmond himself should be able to come to Westminster and have the decisive say on English or Welsh education, health service or other issues."

Complaining of 'unfairness' in this context is meaningless because every possible arrangement will be unfair to someone. Britain is an asymmetric place which already has unbalanced power arrangements: in London, in Wales, in Scotland, in England, in built-up areas now agreeing city deals, the breadth and depth of devolution are all different, but their MPs have the same say in Westminster. When Cameron talks of what is 'fair', he means 'fair' for the Conservative party's interests only.

This would not matter much if he hadn't then taken a step further than he ought to have done - by bringing the SNP's voting rights on English matters into play.

"It wouldn't be appropriate for English constituents to have a rate of tax essentially imposed on them by Scottish members of parliament," he added.

Where on earth had this come from?

Only three days have passed since George Osborne told MPs Scottish MPs would still be permitted to vote on the Budget.

And under the Conservatives' three proposals published in the government's command paper on options for English votes for English laws, there is nothing at all which suggests the SNP would be restricted from having a say on these issues.

The approach being pursued by William Hague is one of ensuring a double-veto. English MPs would be given the opportunity of voting down anything they don't like being imposed by a Labour government propped up, say, by MPs in Scotland. But the bill would ultimately have to be passed by a majority of British MPs for it to become law. That would apply to Budgets as well as everything else.

It's almost as if the Tory strategizing has been solely focused on ensuring a Conservative opposition can block Labour bills, and not at all on the possibility of a Conservative government's proposals being scuppered by Scottish opposition.

Cameron's intervention has come from nowhere. That makes it brazenly partisan. There is no regard here for what is best for the long-term stability of the UK. Instead we have a naked, grim struggle for power in which principles are harnessed for political ends, rather than being pursued in their own right.

The Conservatives have been goaded by circumstance into embarking on a constitutional struggle that is not of their making. It is the SNP that takes the credit for this. It is the SNP which will be gaining in power and influence after 2015. Sturgeon and the man who will lead the SNP in parliament after May, Alex Salmond, may have lost a battle last September. But it is entirely possible they could yet win the war.

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