This time it is between Nick Clegg and George Osborne over a “soak the rich” tax grab plan proposed by the Deputy Prime Minister.
Posturing by Mr Clegg? Definitely. Will it ever happen? Not according to Mr Osborne.
It did not take long for the Chancellor to slap down the Deputy PM and warn that his plan threatens to drive away the wealthy.
We should expect many more of these clashes between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the weeks ahead as the two parties prepare to face their increasingly restless activists at the party conferences.
Just a day after the coalition row over airports policy, Mr Clegg is proposing an emergency tax on the wealthiest.
Not an income tax rise, but a one-off hit on
Mr Clegg is apparently excited that he has now been overtaken as the most unpopular member of the Government by George Osborne.
“Small mercies,” he tells interviewer Nicholas Watt.
Small mercies, indeed. His tax-the-rich plan is not popular with his rival for unpopularity, the Chancellor.
“I am clear that the wealthy should pay more, which is why in the recent budget I increased the tax on very expensive property transactions,” Mr Osborne hit back.
“But we also have to be careful as a country we don’t drive away the wealth creators and the businesses that are going to lead our economic recovery.”
On the Tory backbenches, the reaction was more pithy. “The politics of envy,” declared Bernard Jenkin. “A pre-conference easy clap line.”
The latter comment is certainly true.
In his Guardian interview, Mr Clegg was trailing his conference speech, in Brighton in four weeks’ time, and no doubt trying to cheer up his gloomy party members after the bruising showdown with rebel Tory MPs on House of Lords reform.
The reason Mr Clegg stands accused of posturing by both Conservative and Labour MPs is because it is not so long ago that he and the Lib Dems backed a tax cut for the rich in the Chancellor’s Budget.
“Nick Clegg is once again taking the British people for fools,” says shadow Treasury minister Chris Leslie. “He talks about a tax on the wealthiest, but he voted for the tax cut for millionaires in George Osborne’s Budget.”
The Deputy PM could also be accused of posturing by stamping his feet over the Tory Lords reform mutiny, and suggesting that David Cameron can forget about bringing in boundary changes and cutting the number of MPs.
“Personally, I don’t think we should be putting this boundary thing to a vote because it isn’t going to happen,” he tells The Guardian.
This boundary thing? That dismissive description of the Tories’ policy reveals how contemptuous he is of the proposal.
Mr Clegg also tried to remind his tetchy activists of the clout he will wield in the ministerial reshuffle expected in the next week or so by all but confirming the return of his friend and ally David Laws, probably to a job in the Cabinet Office.
When I spoke to Mr Jenkin about the Clegg tax demand, he recalled the famous Benjamin Disraeli quote: “England does not love coalitions.”
His point was that they’re not ideal, they involve messy compromises and disagreements are inevitable.
Especially, I would say, in the run-up to the party conferences. So a spat a day between the Coalition policies over the next few weeks is entirely possible.
Mmmm lets what is the legacies of the Fibdems so far failure to keep their promise in Tuition Fees, Reform House of Lords, Boundary Changes, and not to mention history will be quite generous to Nick Clegg, and rightly so in some ways. It will admire him for leading his party into government, for blazing a trail for coalition government, for continuing to promote a distinctively liberal project in prodigiously difficult economic and political circumstances, and for sticking with dignity to his task as his authority was assailed and eroded.
But it is not history’s verdict that Clegg has to worry about today. The verdict of the here and now counts more. Above all, he must face the increasing suggestion that his party is irrevocably on course to do significantly worse with him as its leader in the 2015 general election than it would do under someone new, specifically the business secretary Vince Cable. That doesn’t mean Clegg is political toast. A could is not a should, or a will. But it is a problem that, ultimately, he and his party cannot ignore.
This verdict is in many ways unfair to Clegg. Several of the charges that are most often and intemperately made against him are wrong, while the case for his defence or mitigation is sometimes far too routinely dismissed. But Clegg, like Tony Blair, has become a figure about whom it is all but impossible to have an objective discussion. And since that too is a fact, it is part of the problem and cannot be ignored either.
It remains the case, for instance, that the results of the 2010 election, rather than Clegg’s deregulatory Orange Book ideology, were decisive in pushing the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservatives. The relative failure to deliver on some distinctively FibDem policies in government – though the report card is mixed – reflects the inherent problems of any small party in any coalition dominated by a much larger rival.
And it is worth remembering, amid what is a continuing bleak picture for Lib Dem prospects, that the public has even now a more nuanced view of Clegg than the echo chamber of condemnation – especially on government economic policy – might suggest.
Voters still think the Lib Dems did the patriotic thing by going into government at a time of crisis. And voters also believe that the deficit needs fixing. These are assets to set against so many other losses.
Like everything else about Clegg, his Guardian interview this week, promoting a new wealth tax, will be over-praised by his supporters and too easily dismissed by his opponents. Wealth taxes are very difficult to operate, and one-off taxes do not provide lasting solutions to enduring problems and inequalities. Promoting this idea may weaken the chances of the Lib Dems’ mansion tax, which is both easier to apply and provides an annual, rather than one-off, tax take. But you can’t dismiss the wealth tax and say at the same time that Clegg is a Tory poodle, although many will.
Clegg’s interview has two much more immediate political purposes, in my judgment. The first, most obviously, is that it underlines to the public the new differentiation on which the party is embarked, particularly in the wake of the collapse of Lords reform. It’s a signal about a commitment to fairness within a more chastened and fractious coalition. Whether it is an effective one is another question. Right now, it is too vague.
The second purpose is aimed squarely at Lib Dems themselves. It tells them just before what should by rights be a jittery party conference that Clegg wishes to be seen as a radical, that he shares their instincts, and that they can still have confidence in him as their leader, perhaps even in a Lab-Lib coalition. It’s a Lloyd George-style shot across Cable’s bows too, and a veiled challenge to the party’s left wing to put up or shut up about alternative economic strategies.
Perhaps it will work. Perhaps enough Lib Dems want the coalition to succeed – never underestimate this feeling within the party – for them to continue to rally around a radical-sounding Clegg in the face of the party’s continuing poll slump, even as the election nears. Perhaps enough non-partisan voters of the sort Clegg identified in his interview exist to share Clegg’s wealth tax reflex – and feel sufficiently distanced from the other parties, including Ukip – for this to start pushing Lib Dem numbers upwards. Perhaps.
My instinct is that this is far too complacent. In particular it is complacent about electoral necessities. The Lib Dems desperately need more voters. The public’s views about Clegg have become very set. It will take a big change to shift them. Yet, speaking of the 1.6 million Labour-leaning voters who have abandoned the Lib Dems, Clegg says baldly in his Guardian interview: “We have lost them.” But a lot of those voters elected Lib Dem MPs who will struggle for other support, while Labour tactical voters in Tory-Lib Dem marginals remain crucial for Lib Dem hopes too.
The underlying crisis for the FibDems is even more serious. As YouGov’s Peter Kellner says in an article in Prospect magazine that should be compulsory reading for all FibDems, if the party remains on 10% (its current opinion poll average), it risks losing 47 of its current 57 seats. Recover to 15% – no sign of that yet – and they still lose 29, mostly to the Tories. Clegg may be right that his party should never again try to position itself to the left of Labour, but he still needs those Labour-leaning voters. He can’t just forget about them. Meanwhile, the party’s local government base haemorrhages council losses every year.
Importantly, his party and his voters sense there is an alternative. This month’s Lib Dem Voice poll of party members had 87% support for Cable against 31% for Clegg. That’s partly why, surely, half of the survey wanted Clegg to quit before the election. YouGov’s polling finds nearly three times as much respect for Cable than for Clegg among Lib Dem voters too. Cable’s appeal to former Lib Dem voters dwarfs that of Clegg. At some point, sentiment cannot withstand such figures.
These numbers make the question of whether you admire or agree with Clegg almost irrelevant. Clegg may be a genius or visionary – or not – but the figures show that he is a loser. Crucially, they also show that Cable – and nobody else matters here – could be a winner in his place. That might not be enough for Labour to oust such a leader, but the FibDems, like the Tories, are more ruthless. With Cable having said he is available, it seems the only question is when, not if, the party decides that Clegg should do an Andrew Strauss.