Peter Hoskin

The Lib Dems have found their issue

The Lib Dems have found their issue
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Well, that was quick.  After the Tories' one-hour-and-forty-minutes-long manifesto launch yesterday, and Labour's comparable event the day before, it was quite a relief that the Lib Dems got through theirs in a nerve-soothing 45 minutes.  And that included introductions from Sarah Teather, Danny Alexander and Vince Cable, and a speech from Nick Clegg - all of them short, sharp and snappy.  The only thing which seemed to drag was the Q&A session at the end.

But timings aside, it was clear that the Lib Dems have hit on an issue which - they think - separates them from the other parties.  In 2005, it was Iraq.  This time around, deserved or not, it's fiscal responsbility.  

In his introduction, Cable said that the other parties were ignoring the "massive elephant in the room," which is the state of the public finances.  And he joked that he was "The Elephant Man" for bringing that forward.  I must admit, it was encouraging to then hear a politician putting numbers on their cuts, and admitting that they "still don't solve the problem" - just as it was refreshing to read all the Lib Dems' sums and fiscal projections in the back of their manifesto (p.100, here).  But it's worth noting that Cable only talked about the deficit, not the elephant behind the elephant - aka, debt.  Would mentioning that make me The Elephant Man Squared?

As for Clegg, he echoed Cable's points, but embellished them with details about the Lib Dems' main policies, and with rhetoric about "fairness" and "opportunity".  His frequent references to the "old parties" - i.e. Labour and the Conservatives - stood out.  The Lib Dems really are trying to position themselves as the "neither of the above" party.  Or, as Clegg put it: "In the end, you vote for the red team or the blue team - whichever one you dislike the least.  Our manifesto says 'No' to that kind of politics."

Clegg soon came up against the main problem with publishing your figures: it gives journalists the chance to pore over them.  In the Q&A session, Nick Robinson asked whether the Lib Dems could realistically expect to find £4bn by clamping down on tax avoidance.  Clegg pointed out that this is only a fraction of the Treasury's own estimates for tax avoidance, but he sounded rather wobbly on the issue.  And this, don't forget, is how the Lib Dems hope to fund their flagship policy of making the first £10,000 of income tax free.

Still, I expect Clegg will be pleased with how today went.  His party have a few neat policies; they've found a message to wrap them up in; and, alas, it seems that they can just shove Vince Cable in front of the cameras to convince voters of their fiscal know-how.  The high point of the Lib Dems' campaign, so far.