Leader’s former key adviser reveals new strategy after shock set of polls show Lib Dems trailing Ukip as third biggest party
Nick Clegg is to adopt a high-risk strategy of highlighting Liberal Democrat policy differences with their Conservative partners before government announcements have been made, according to the deputy prime minister’s former adviser .
Richard Reeves, Clegg’s director of strategy for two years, says in an article for the Guardian on Monday that Lib Dem ministers will put the inner workings of the coalition on display as they seek to win back supporters who have left in droves. A failure to bring back voters could result in the collapse of the agreement with the Tories before 2015, he says.
Reeves’s article comes on the day that Clegg aims to differentiate his party from the Tories and Labour in a keynote speech delivered on the eve of his fifth anniversary as Lib Dem leader.
Clegg will mount a defence of the government’s welfare reforms but also claim that interventions by his ministers stopped the Conservatives from introducing a further £6.2bn of cuts in welfare spending this autumn.
The new strategy follows an Opinium poll for the Observer on Sunday showing the Lib Dems are now trailing fourth behind the UK Independence party. The poll found Ukip is attracting 14% support, with the Lib Dems on just 8%.
Reeves writes that Clegg will be testing the idea that coalition governments can function even as the two parties clearly show their separate colours: “The inner workings of government will be on display as never before. The Lib Dems will make their own position clear long before the government does. The necessary compromises of government will become badges of pride for a mature, open government rather than dirty secrets, tucked away.”
Senior Lib Dems want to see an improvement in support by May when the parties face local elections, he says: “The local elections will also show whether Clegg’s party can take seats off the Conservatives – who they will face in greater numbers this time – which is a central plank of his centrist electoral strategy.”
If the strategy fails, Reeves writes, the coalition could well collapse before the next election: “2103 is the year the Liberal Democrat strategy – deliver, then differentiate – will be tested. A more assertive stance in act two of coalition should mean greater support and more votes. If not, the curtain will probably fall on the coalition before 2015.”
The Lib Dems have been eager to show major policy differences with the Tories in recent weeks, including over multinational tax avoidance, their response to the Leveson report on press ethics and the communications data bill.
In Monday’s speech, Clegg will say that many Conservatives believe that no one could possibly be out of work unless they were scroungers. “The siren voices of the Tory right who peddle this myth could have pulled a majority Conservative government in the direction of draconian welfare cuts,” he will tell the Centre Forum thinktank.
“The Conservatives suggested we cut an extra £10bn from welfare. And ideas were put forward to penalise families with more than two children by taking away child benefit, and to penalise young people who want to move away from home in search of a job by denying them housing benefit.”
These policies were dropped because of Lib Dem intervention, he plans to say. “We agreed £3.8bn of benefit cuts – uprating all benefits in line with the pay rises we can afford from next April in the public sector of 1%. And we rejected the more extreme reforms that had been put on the table.”
Clegg is expected to say that his party is preparing for the next wave of welfare reforms and will continue to argue for curbing all age-related universal benefits for pensioners with assets of more than £1m.
However, insiders say this is unlikely to happen before the next election and would come after the 2015-16 spending round.
In his address, Clegg will acknowledge that governing in difficult times meant the party acquired a “harder edge”, but he will say the alternative was “a retreat to the comfort and relative irrelevance of opposition”.