What is Nick Clegg up to? He held a press conference today to tell us that his party's manifesto will be a Lib Dem manifesto, not a manifesto aimed at a partnership with Labour or the Tories. And he announced that his party will ring-fence education spending for two-to-19-year-olds in the next Parliament. The Liberal Democrat leader told the assembled hacks that Britain needed to move from 'austerity to ambition', another fortune cookie phrase presumably cooked up by whoever thought 'Alarm Clock Britain' made sense. Clegg said:
'As we look towards 2015, it's clear to me that Britain doesn't want or need simply more of the same. The Conservative party will tell you everything is fine, let's just carry on down the tramlines of permanent austerity. But once the books are balanced, as they must be and will be if Liberal Democrats are in government, in my view it would be wrong to carry on with austerity as usual. Britain doesn't need more of the same, it needs a new wave of energy, optimism and, quite simply Liberalism. Liberal Democrats will put forward in 2015 a responsible manifesto: as I set out last week we have a responsible plan to eradicate the deficit and set a course to bring debt down. But acting responsibly is not the same as carrying on regardless of changing circumstances. Labour claim to want to change, of course, but until they come forward with a coherent plan to deal with Britain's fiscal problems they're just whistling in the wind, they won't be taken seriously. The way I see it is this: if this Parliament was about repairing the British economy, the next parliament is about rewiring it. If the last Parliament was about rescue, the next must be about renewal. Rescue to renewal. That's why we need to move from austerity to ambition.'
Clegg is setting up what the Conservatives will argue is a false dichotomy between spending cuts and empowering people: his Coalition partners will argue that a smaller state does not exclude ambition, it enables it. But Clegg is setting out a marker that the Lib Dems don't believe in the hefty Labourish state, nor in 'rolling back the state' (possibly one of the more misused phrases of recent times): they believe in a medium-sized, 'enabling state'.
That the Deputy Prime Minister is extending the ring-fence around education spending so that it covers 'cradle to college' might not be a commitment to a medium-sized state if he then produces spending cuts that fund it. Or it might be less ideological than that: the party's pollster Ryan Coetzee has examined voters' responses to detailed policy propositions, and the most positively received will crop up in speeches and announcements over the next few months.
But what is interesting is Clegg's continuing commitment to ring-fencing when his colleague Vince Cable has described the practice as an 'unbalanced approach to public spending' which is 'not very sensible' in the long-term. Before the 2010 election, he said 'there can be no ring-fencing if we are serious about getting the public finances back on track'. Perhaps this is another sign that the Business Secretary is being shuffled away from his current role as the Liberal Democrats' economy lead.