Tackling the budget deficit may the coalition government’s short-term overriding need, but its legacy will be both a stronger economy and also a fairer society according to the speech Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg gave earlier today.
In a tightly packed room, Clegg addressed the massed ranks of the media in a way that previous Liberal Democrat leaders have only very occasionally been able to. This speech was a long way away from the days of Lib Dem party leaders addressing two journalists and a clutch of party staff in the Cowley Street main meeting room.
Echoing themes from previous speeches, the Liberal Democrat leader emphasised how he wants his party, and the government more generally, to have been seen to deliver a fairer society by the time of the next general election. Previously Clegg has emphasised the role of political reform in this; today he addressed increasing social mobility.
He recounted several of the policy decisions the government has already taken: raising the basic threshold for income tax, introducing the Pupil Premium to target funds at the most disadvantaged children and returning the focus of Sure Start to its original emphasis on helping the neediest families.
The main news in the speech – the appointment of Alan Milburn as an "independent, expert reviewer" of progress on social mobility – had already been leaked and heavily covered. The details fleshed out in this speech and in briefings make clear this appointment is intended to be very different from the sort of previous cross-party appointments which provide a dash of political statesmanship and a day of headlines but then quickly disappear.
Milburn will report annually to Parliament on how the government is doing, with Clegg expressing the hope that the Parliamentary powers that be also ensure there is an accompanying annual debate. To support Milburn’s work he will have a staff team, whilst in government Clegg will be chairing a new ministerial group on social mobility.
Providing such a high profile platform for praising or criticising the government to a long-standing political opponent is a high-risk move for the government.
It is of a piece with Osborne’s approach on the Budget, where he robustly defended it on progressive grounds. The government is clearly committing itself to be judged on social mobility and fairness. Volunteering up those criteria for judging a government is a radical departure from the Thatcherite past of the Conservative Party.
Looking to offer something other than a record of balancing the books is also perhaps a subconscious reflection of the legacy of Roy Jenkins. Economists and historians have heaped praise on the way he balanced the books for Harold Wilson in the 1960s. The public, however, voted them both out of office in 1970. Perhaps too there is a piece of internal coalition manoeuvring going on here: let the Conservatives be the hard-nosed people who balance the books and grudgingly win respect for that, while the Liberal Democrats (on social mobility, political reform, international aid and the environment) deliver the policies that people warm too.