Clegg Quells Dissent Over Choice Of Ally

(Independent) – NICK CLEGG was forced to quell dissent from within his own ranks and fight off attempts by Labour and the Tories to woo his party yesterday, as he pleaded with voters to take a “once-in-a-generation opportunity for real change” at the next election.

Senior figures from the Government and the Tory frontbench had already made pitches for the Liberal Democrat leader’s support in the event of a hung parliament by the time Mr Clegg gave his closing speech to his party’s spring conference.

But in a defiant message to his political rivals, he said both major parties were “closer to confusion” than to his values. Mr Clegg, who delivered his address despite suffering from a sore throat, reserved his strongest attack for the Tories. He argued that David Cameron’s team was behaving like a “protection racket” in warning voters that Britain’s credit worthiness would plummet in the markets if they did not deliver a clear Conservative victory.

“David Cameron, George Osborne and Ken Clarke marched into the City of London the other day and declared that if voters didn’t give them the result they want, the markets would tear the house down,” he said.

“Cynical, desperate, the Tories think they’re entitled to victory – the moment they feel it slipping from their grasp, they start lashing out. It’s a political version of the protection racket – do what we want, or else.”

Mr Clegg also took aim at the Tories over their support for Lord Ashcroft, the party’s billionaire deputy chairman and donor who recently revealed he had not been paying tax on his overseas assets. The Tories had become “the world’s first offshore political party” as a result of the £5m donated by Lord Ashcroft, he said. “How can David Cameron claim to clean up politics when he can’t even clean up his own party deputy chairman. The label says made in Britain, but the money says made in Belize.”

Mr Clegg called Labour the “party of many disasters” and used his speech to quash suggestions that he would cut a secret deal to deliver Mr Cameron or Gordon Brown to No 10. “Some days I read that we’re planning a deal with Labour, some days that we’re planning a deal with the Conservatives, other days that we’ll refuse to talk to anyone at all,” he said. “Yet, when all the speculation is said and done, I keep coming back to some simple truths. I am not the kingmaker, the 45 million voters of Britain are the kingmakers.”

Delegates at the Birmingham conference had voiced concerns at the prospect of a coalition with Mr Cameron, a fear prompted by Mr Clegg’s admission that the party winning greatest support from voters should be allowed to form a Government. He was also criticised by delegates for praising Baroness Thatcher in recent interviews. Aides to Mr Clegg said that party members would be consulted if the prospect of a formal coalition arose. “Any leader worth his salt would take his party with him,” his spokeswoman said.

Polls continue to predict a hung parliament, with two suggesting over the weekend that Mr Cameron would not have a clear Commons majority after the next election. Support for the Liberal Democrats has so far defied expectations that it would be squeezed by the closeness of the race between Labour and the Tories. A poll for ICM put the Liberal Democrat support at 21 per cent, with YouGov putting them on 17 per cent.

Though Mr Clegg did not repeat his aim of becoming Prime Minister, an ambition which featured heavily in his autumn party conference speech, he set out the equally demanding target of claiming a third of the votes cast. “Almost one in four chose the Liberal Democrats at the last election. If that increased to one in three, we could lead the next Government,” he said.

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Clegg Calls For End To ‘Stifling’ Libel Laws

(Independent) – BRITAIN’S “STIFLING” LIBEL LAWS are “making a mockery” of the justice system and risk snuffing out legitimate scientific debate, Nick Clegg warns.

In a speech at the Royal Society, the Liberal Democrat leader will blame “draconian and unbalanced” laws for the growth of libel tourism that has seen London become the libel capital of the world. His party is drawing up a package of reforms which would shift the burden of proof on to the plaintiff, decrease the size of damages awarded and introduce rules blocking foreigners from using English courts to fight their libel cases.

Existing rules allow foreign plaintiffs to use English courts to sue, even if the publications in question sold very few copies in Britain.

“Libel tourism is making a mockery of British justice,” Mr Clegg will say. In one case, a US academic was successfully sued for £130,000 by a Saudi businessman in an English court, even though the defamatory book sold just 23 copies in Britain over the internet.

“I am deeply concerned about the stifling effect English libel laws are having on scientific debate,” Mr Clegg will say. “Scientists must be allowed to question claims fearlessly – especially those that relate to medical care, environmental damage and public safety – if we are to protect ourselves against poor research, phoney treatments and vested corporate interests.”

He will also use the speech to criticise “super injunctions” sought and employed by companies to comprehensively gag the media from discussing sensitive issues. MPs and transparency groups were outraged last October when an injunction issued on behalf of the oil-trading company Trafigura not only blocked any reporting of the reasons for the injunction, but also sought to block any coverage of parliamentary proceedings involved in the case. “Our libel law and practice have turned a country once famed for its traditions of freedom and liberty into a legal farce where people and corporations with money can impose silence on others at will,” Mr Clegg will say. “I believe in raucous freedom of speech, not gagging orders in our courts.”

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has already ordered a review of the libel laws, due to be completed by mid-March. The review panel, made up of academics, lawyers and newspaper editors, will look at whether a specialist tribunal should be set up to resolve defamation cases out of court.

Lib Dems Swap Poll Pledges For Austerity

(Reuters) – LIBERAL DEMOCRAT leader Nick Clegg, potentially a pivotal figure in a hung parliament, said on Monday he would keep spending pledges to a minimum in the election because the indebted country could not afford it.

Clegg refused to be drawn on whether he would support a minority administration in the event of an inconclusive election result, saying he would not sacrifice his core policies for the sake of power.

He told a Reuters Newsmaker event in London that voters had no time for “implausible promises” when Britain faced the greatest financial crisis in generations.

Opinion polls suggest the Conservatives will beat Labour in an election due by June, but may fall short of an outright majority, leaving Clegg’s party holding the balance of power.

Both the larger parties have been wooing the Lib Dems in recent weeks, emphasising areas where policies overlap.

Britain’s budget deficit is running at a record 178 billion pounds in the wake of the global financial crisis.

“Shopping lists of pledges don’t wash any more,” Clegg said, ditching earlier Lib Dem commitments on childcare and pensions.

“The politics of plenty are over. Voters will have no time for implausible promises and no interest in attempts to buy their favour with cheap trinkets.

Instead the Lib Dems would campaign on just four priorities — fairer taxation, a boost for primary school education, a programme of infrastructure investment and political reform.

“The heart of our manifesto will be short, direct and to the point. We have stripped away everything that is not essential because the country cannot afford it.”

Clegg also said Britain’s largest banks should be broken up to ensure that the riskier activities are separated from the more conventional retail operations.

Markets are concerned the election could produce a “hung parliament” with no absolute majority for either main party, or a government too weak to take the tough measures needed to cut a deficit totalling a record 12.6 percent of GDP.

Conservative leader David Cameron says his party would cut the deficit faster and further than Labour, but has yet to detail spending cuts.

The government plans to halve the deficit over four years but is reluctant to cut spending until recovery is assured.

Clegg: ‘Labour And Tories Stand For Corrupt Politics’

(Guardian) – NICK CLEGG has used his strongest language yet to attack both the Conservatives and Labour, saying a vote for either of them is a vote for “corrupt politics”.

The Liberal Democrat leader denounced both parties equally as he struggles to counter reports that in the event of a hung parliament he will shore up one or other of the other parties who have not managed to get an overall majority.

Clegg’s grassroots members are suspicious of their party high command’s resolve not to form a coalition government. But Clegg uses an interview today on the BBC‘s Hard Talk programme to publish a list of “progressive” policies Labour and the Tories have blocked.

He says: “A vote for Labour or the Conservatives is a vote for corrupt politics. A vote for Labour or the Conservatives is a vote for tax dodgers in politics. A vote for letting guilty MPs off the hook. A vote for an unfair voting system.”

The Lib Dems have listed the areas in which they regard Labour and the Tories to have reneged on pledges. On the Tories, they say: “David Cameron talks about change, but none of the Conservative MPs who avoided capital gains tax or made huge profits flipping their homes were forced to resign. He promised to give people the right to sack corrupt MPs but then the Conservatives voted against a law that would do just that. They have made it clear they will block attempts to make the voting system fair. They walked out on cross-party talks on party funding and refused to cap donations.”

Regarding Labour they say: “Labour promised to clean up politics and make it fair but they failed. They wouldn’t even push through reform after the expenses scandal. They went back on their promise to change the voting system.

“They failed to make the House of Lords elected and accountable to voters. They failed to clean up party funding because they rely on the unions. And they blocked attempts to give people the right to sack corrupt MPs. Labour will never change the political system.”

The Lib Dem leader said yesterday on BBC’s World at One that he was not the “kingmaker” who will decide whether Labour or the Tories rule in the event of a hung parliament. He said there would be no “backroom deals” ahead of the election, even if it seems no single party is on course to win a Commons majority.

At the weekend the prime minister lavished praise on the Liberal Democrats, while before Christmas Cameron made another overture to the Lib Dems, highlighting areas of agreement between their parties on issues ranging from constitutional reform to civil liberties.

Nick Clegg Calls For Reform Of ‘Clapped-out Political System’

(Guardian) – NICK CLEGG today called for a new era of candour in Westminster to remove the “despair” people feel about politicians.

In his new year’s message, the Liberal Democrat leader said “2010 must be the year we press the political reset button” and tackle the lack of faith in the political system.

“As the countdown to the next general election finally begins, I have a simple question for the other party leaders: what do you believe, really believe? People don’t want leading politicians clinging on to power for its own sake, or just telling people what they want to hear. There’s got to be more to it than that,” Clegg said.

While condemning the “Punch and Judy” politics of the Commons, he said both Labour and the Conservatives had failed to show they gave more than lip-service to the need for “change”. The general election has to be held by 3 June 2010.

“I have a confession to make: 2009 tested my belief in politics to breaking point,” Clegg said.

“I remember once looking round the House of Commons during another Punch and Judy session of prime minister’s questions. In the real world, youth unemployment had just reached its highest level ever, our brave soldiers were facing extraordinary dangers in Afghanistan, the bankers were still gorging themselves on bonuses, and the economy was in the middle of the worst recession in generations. And what were the politicians doing? Yelling and guffawing at each other as if the world outside didn’t exist.

“So I don’t blame anyone for feeling a sense of despair about our clapped out political system. You are being taken for granted by the people in charge. Big money is hollowing out politics with some rich donors not even bothering to say whether they pay full British taxes or not. And to top it all the expenses scandals exposed some MPs as spivvy property speculators and tax evaders rather than public servants.”

So 2010 had to mean “big, permanent change for the better” where politicians “set things on a new course”.

Clegg said: “Of course both Labour and the Conservatives have learned to parrot the language of change. But where’s the proof they mean it? Despite all the hot air about fixing politics they have both voted against giving people the right to sack MPs who’ve seriously broken the rules.

“Both have refused to clean up the rotten system of party political funding. Both refuse to give you your say by introducing fair votes to the House of Commons. And both refuse to shake up the City of London, so that bankers can never again play Russian roulette with your savings.

“Some people say, what’s the point of voting when the same old parties always win? I say: vote for what you believe in. If you like what the Liberal Democrats stand for, vote for it. If you want real change, not phoney change, vote for it. If you think things should be different, vote for it.”

The Liberal Democrat leader said “a belief in fairness” was his most prominent belief. And he promised “new ideas to make Britain the fair country I believe most people want it to be” including targeted help for the most needy children in school, measures to reduce independence on the City in favour of a “new, green economy”.

“I hope in the coming months even more people will get a chance to find out what I believe in, and the beliefs of the Liberal Democrats. If enough people share our convictions, our beliefs, then 2010 really can be the beginning of something new.”

Political Leaders Agree To Historic TV Debates

(Guardian) – GORDON BROWN, David Cameron and Nick Clegg are to go head-to-head in Britain’s first live prime ministerial TV debates as part of next year’s general election campaign, following an agreement announced between broadcasters and the three main political parties.

The parties and main TV channels have been negotiating on the format of the debates for months, but they announced today they had reached agreement on the details and format they will take.

It has been agreed that three programmes will be broadcast in peak time in front of studio audiences. Each will be between 85 and 90 minutes long. About half of each debate will be themed.

ITV is to stage the first debate, which will be presented by Alistair Stewart. Sky will produce the second debate presented by Adam Boulton, and David Dimbleby will present the final programme on the BBC. It has yet to be decided whether questions will be posed by presenters or members of the public in the audience. The format excludes Channel Four and parties such as the Greens, Ukip and nationalists .

The decision represents a risk for Cameron, the frontrunner, and some senior Tory activists expressed fears tonight that he had sent a lifeline to a flailing Labour campaign.

Labour had been calling for six debates, claiming the Conservatives wanted only one, but Labour’s chief negotiator, Lord Mandelson, agreed to the compromise of three. The Conservatives said they had always been happy with three debates, but had opposed a Labour proposal that the debates start before the election campaign.

The leaders’ debates will be staged in the first three weeks of a four-week campaign with no debate held in the week of polling day. It is expected that one debate will focus on foreign affairs, one on the economy and one on public services, but it is possible that the foreign affairs debate will be dropped in favour of another subject if there is insufficient difference between the parties on foreign issues.

The agreement gives Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and the least- known of the three party leaders, a chance to shine. Previous plans to stage such debates – notably in 1997 when the idea was backed by John Major – failed partly over disagreements on whether the Lib Dems should be involved.

Clegg expressed his pleasure tonight, saying: “After a terrible year for politicians because of the expenses scandals, these debates will be an opportunity to start re-engaging people with politics.

“It will become a centrepiece of the general election campaign and provide a new way of doing things.”

Cameron, seen as a better communicator than Brown, might have most to lose as the latest poll – by ComRes for the Independent tonight – shows the Tories with a nine-point lead. But Cameron said : “It is a thoroughly good thing. I have been pushing this for two years to happen. I think it can enliven our democracy.” Recent experience in America suggests the candidate trailing does not always benefit. The underdog comes under intense pressure to deliver a knockout blow in presidential debates but rarely achieves this.

Brown will hope the nearly four-and-a-half hours of TV debate will give him the chance to show his grasp of the issues. His spokesman said the prime minister was relishing the prospect, pointing out that commentators thought his performances in the Commons had improved. But one Labour strategist said: “We are not naive. We know that physical appearance, demeanour and how our man looks whilst other candidates talk will be as important to viewers as what he says.”

The Labour election campaign team has sent officials to the US to talk to TV production teams and Democratic campaigners. Brown will also have to restrain his temper if he starts to be attacked by the TV audience.

Labour said it was still seeking to agree high-profile TV debates involving other members of the cabinet and shadow cabinet, especially one between Alistair Darling, the chancellor, and his shadow George Osborne. A Conservative spokeswoman said her party was very happy to extend the format to other senior figures. An extension would allow other presenters, such as Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys, a chance to act as chairmen.

Some Tory activists admitted doubts at Cameron’s decision, fearing the novelty of the TV debate means they would become a central focus of the campaign.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website said: “Heading for a massive defeat, Gordon Brown has been given a lifeline by these TV debates. They will also be a big boost for Nick Clegg. He will be given a status that the third party in British politics has never had before. I hope the Conservative headquarters does not live to regret this decision.”

The SNP’s leader, Alex Salmond, said the decision was an attempt to rig the election. “The broadcasters have got to meet their public service obligations to audiences across the UK, and for them to propose debates which signally fail to do so shows an extraordinarily high-handed attitude and depressingly metropolitan mindset,” he said. Separate debates will be held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which will be broadcast on BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and on the BBC News Channel. The BBC and Sky will make their programmes available to other broadcasters simultaneously. ITV, by contrast, will make its programme available immediately after transmission. This is partly due to ITV’s need to include advertising.

In a bid to meet their obligations to impartiality during the election, BBC and Sky both said that after the prime ministerial debates minor parties would be given the chance across BBC output to respond to the issues raised in the debate.

PM Attacked On Expenses ‘Silence’

(BBC) – TORY LEADER DAVID CAMERON has accused the government of a ‘big omission’ by not making any mention of MPs’ expenses in the Queen’s Speech.

Either ministers were ‘incompetent’ in not realising new laws were needed to implement reforms, or were afraid of Labour backbenchers, he said.

Sir Christopher Kelly, author of the reforms, said he was ‘disappointed.’

But deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman said laws had already been passed to allow reforms to be brought in.

Sir Christopher’s committee on standards in public life carried out a six-month inquiry in the wake of the scandal about MPs’ expenses and made a series of recommendations earlier this month to change the system.

While he was conducting his review the government rushed through legislation to set up a new body, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, with the power to implement the Kelly review’s recommendations.

But Sir Christopher said in his report that the new authority did not have sufficient powers and should be made responsible for MPs’ pay and pensions, as well as expenses, and be given tougher enforcement and investigation powers, among other changes.

‘It is disappointing therefore that today’s Queen’s Speech did not contain measures to address the changes we believe to be necessary affecting the remit, powers and independence of the new body being established to regulate expenses,’ Sir Christopher said in a statement after the Queen’s Speech.

‘There is no reason why the relatively straightforward legislation needed in this area should prevent the new regulatory body from getting other important changes under way.’

Mr Cameron said there were 11 separate measures which needed to be passed into law in order to implement the Kelly report; but accused Mr Brown of ‘a great big silence’ when challenged to bring them forward.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme leaving expenses out of the speech was a ‘big omission.’

‘Either the government is incompetent and hadn’t realised that Kelly’s report requires these laws to be passed or they are frightened of their own backbenchers, or perhaps they don’t think cleaning up the House of Commons is as important as they said it was.

‘One of the most important legal changes that still has to go through is putting MPs’ pay and pensions on an independent statutory footing so that MPs in the future can’t fiddle with their own pension and their own pay.’

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg also said new legislation was needed, specifically to force MPs to disclose their financial interests.

He had been arguing for days that the Queen’s Speech was a waste of time — as so little time remained for MPs to pass laws before the next general election — and the government should concentrate instead on sorting out expenses and the economy.

Following Sir Christopher’s statement, Number 10 said the prime minister was ready to bring forward any legislation needed to complete his reforms ‘on a cross-party basis as required.’

But Ms Harman, who is also Commons leader, told the BBC: ‘I think that the things Sir Christopher has recommended can and will be taken forward by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

‘I don’t want anyone to think that we have simply not taken the action that was necessary.’

Some recommendations, like the proposed ban on employing relatives, did not require legislation, she said.

She accused Mr Cameron of creating a ‘smokescreen’ adding: ‘It’s not true to say that loose ends have been left and we are somehow half-hearted about this.’

But she said: ‘I will need to reassure Sir Christopher that the things that he wants done, will be done, those legal changes that he doesn’t agree with can simply be dealt with by not bringing them into effect.’