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Wednesday, August 29, 2012 

A tax on Clegg opening his mouth?

And so the new term fast approaches. The last minute frenzy to buy equipment that'll never be used commences, as does the spending on clothes that only those forced on pain of punishment would wear in this day and age. A new year brings new faces, and new challenges: just who will be the first to christen the toilet ceiling with wet bog roll? Will there be a repeat of last year's highlight, the interruption of an in progress liaison in the sixth room common room cupboard? Who knows? And who can tell what the kids will get up to as well? Ahh.

But enough poor gags inspired by 90s Sunday lunchtime comedy shows. It's also the beginning of the new political term, resuming as the last one left off. We may have lost one shameless self-publicist, off to New York to spend more time with her bank balance rather than the lovely people of Corby, but Nicholas Clegg it seems will always be with us. Having apparently failed to learn their lesson after advising a vote for the Liberal Democrats two years back, the Graun deigns to give our wonderful deputy prime minister a thoroughly soft "interview", which in practice amounts to Nick giving the best gloss possible to his role in our thoroughly miserable coalition. There had to be something more though, and so drawn up on the back of a fag packet came the wizard wheeze of a wealth tax, necessary apparently to prevent social cohesion from breaking down.

It's tempting to treat the suggestion in the same way as it was produced, and just dismiss it as another example of how the Lib Dems will come up with anything in an attempt to show how they aren't quite as nasty as the Tories, or not quite as committed to pummelling the economy into the ground. We know the Tories will never agree to it, Clegg knows they'll never agree to it, and the Graun knows it'll never happen, but it's a silly season story that fills up the politics pages. It's more than this, though. Ignore Clegg's waffle in the interview about an "economic war" and how "what people once thought" would be a "short, sharp recession" has turned into a "a longer-term process of economic recovery and fiscal restraint", for which read "depression made worse by the policies pursued by the government I'm an integral part of", and instead focus on this part:

"While I am proud of some of the things we have done as a government I actually think we need to really hard-wire fairness into what we do in the next phases of fiscal restraint. If we don't do that I don't think the process will be either socially or politically sustainable or acceptable."

Nick Watt takes this to mean Clegg wants something along the lines of a wealth tax in return for the proposed £10bn extra in welfare cuts. The real point to be made here though is that it's all well and good wanting to hard-wire fairness in now, if such a thing were indeed possible, it's that it would have been rather nice if Clegg and friends had aimed to do so already. After all, we had a perfectly fine levy on the wealthiest already in place, the 50p top rate of tax, as introduced by the last government as a temporary measure. Clegg and Danny Alexander decided to bow to George Osborne's ideological sabotage of the policy in return for a further rise in the personal allowance, a policy that helps the middle rather than the poorest the most. As for the apparent concern for those reliant on benefits now, barely a single Lib Dem has raised more than a whisper against the imposition of workfare, or the continuing assault on the sick and disabled through the work capability assessment. That a further £10bn in cuts will make things much worse is obvious, but the current situation is bad enough.

If there was a point to the Liberal Democrats entering the coalition other than self-aggrandisement, or "saving" the country from the prospect of a second election, then surely it was to temper the Tories' worst excesses while hopefully getting a few of their own policies enshrined in law. What exactly does Clegg have to show for the past two and a bit years other than a worthless "pupil premium", the hardly inspiring rise in the personal tax allowance, and a few praiseworthy steps in the right direction on civil liberties? It isn't, as he claims, that the left will always cry betrayal, it's that he and his party have been played for fools by the Conservatives at every turn. He was suckered into a "miserable little compromise" on electoral reform which failed as a result, followed the same path on the Lords, and has failed to stand up to the Tories on education, the NHS and the economy. From the beginning Clegg should have made clear that his party holds the key to power, and without it, Cameron would have to almost certainly go to the country. The coalition agreement was a disaster; rather than a document which locked the two sides into supporting policies both resent for different reasons, there should have been an "understanding" that could develop and change as the facts have. Everything that has happened since has been as consequence of that mistake.

The end result has been two unpopular parties that increasingly loathe each other, but are trapped together for fear of being dumped out of power ignominiously. The least Clegg could do in the circumstances is spare us is the faux concern that the government he signed up to might be protecting the rich at the expense of the poor. It's what it's been doing ever since the rose garden, and even if by some miracle Clegg does get his wealth tax, it won't alter that fact.

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