Simon Hughes looks refreshed and recharged, after spending the summer break first in north Wales and then Barcelona – “My favourite city.” He greets me in Westminster’s Portcullis House, wearing the Lib Dems’ mandatory yellow tie. His shirt has thin yellow lines on it, too. It is easy to feel sorry for sartorially-challenged Liberal Democrat MPs – blue and red are such easier colours to work with.
I can’t help but begin by reminding Hughes of our encounter on BBC1’s Question Time in May 2010, less than 48 hours after the Tory-Lib Dem coalition was formed. He and I clashed repeatedly over the need for austerity; I tell him how astonished I had been to discover the MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark had signed up to the coalition agreement and was willing to defend the Conservatives’ cuts in front of a television audience of millions. “I know you were,” he says with a wry smile.
Hughes, the Lib Dems’ deputy leader, has long been seen as – and has often touted himself as – his party’s left-wing conscience. So, does he still have the same level of support for the coalition today, as he seemed to have back then, two-and-a-half years ago, during the honeymoon period? “In summary, yes,” replies Hughes, before reeling off a familiar list of reasons as to why a coalition with the Conservatives was unavoidable: “The only realistic outcome after the general election, as opposed to a coalition, would have been a minority Tory government and I’m clear that would not have been as pleasant, acceptable or palatable as a coalition.”
The veteran Lib Dem MP, first elected to Parliament in 1983, argues that his party could not have afforded to “bottle” the decision to go into government or “run away from it” but “two-and-a-half years later, it has obviously been at least as difficult as we thought, if not more difficult, in terms of getting the economy to move again.”
It isn’t just the economy. The coalition government has also failed to make progress political and constitutional reform – the Lib Dems lost the AV referendum last year and, over the summer, party leader Nick Clegg was forced to drop proposals for House of Lords reform.
“A deal with the Tories that would deliver any sort of political reform was always going to be difficult,” he says ruefully. However, he adds: “It is absolutely clear to me that Cameron and Osborne and the Tory frontbench were very clearly in favour of [Lords] reform. In the end, they just decided they could not deliver their troops... It was very frustrating.”
So it was Tory backbenchers, not the party’s frontbenchers, who were to blame? “The backbenchers are just unreconstructed in the way that Tory backbenchers, some of them, always are.”
Nonetheless, Hughes maintains that the Conservatives have been impressive on a range of other issues, including civil liberties and, bizarrely, Europe. In a statement that will annoy and anger those “unreconstructed” Tory backbenchers, Hughes argues that the Lib Dems have “tempered [the Conservatives’] natural anti Europeanism. William Hague has actually been far more positive and inclusive about Europe than we would have expected.”
What about the relationship between Clegg and David Cameron? Has it changed? “Of course,” he admits. “It was warmer in the Rose Garden.” Wasn’t it a mistake not to keep the coalition more business-like from the get-go? He disagrees. The real issue, says Hughes, is that “European coalitions normally take a month to put together…we did it very quickly.”
I meet Hughes on the day before Clegg issues his much-mocked YouTube mea culpa on tuition fees. The party leader’s apology is for making the pre-election pledge – to vote against any rise in fees – rather than breaking it. His deputy, who abstained on the tuition fees vote in December 2010, takes a different approach.
“The only thing that I wish we’d had either more time to do… was to pay more attention to tuition fees. We could have got a deal that wouldn’t have given us the political problem we had… We could have done it differently.”
What was the Lib Dems’ biggest mistake in government – voting for a trebling of tuition fees or allowing the cut in the top rate of income tax? “Tuition fees was the bigger political mistake because that was much more under our control,” he replies.
But couldn’t the Lib Dems have blocked the 50p cut? In an interview with the Observer’s Toby Helm almost exactly a year ago, in the run-up to the 2011 party conference, Hughes promised that the Lib Dems would veto any move by the Tories to slash the top rate of tax. Why didn’t they?
“We held out as long as we could and in the end we managed to get what we thought was a reasonable outcome. We got an increase in the [income tax] threshold and it will go up to £10,000… that’s our biggest prize.” But, he says, the Tories were “insistent” on cutting the top rate: “It was a mistake.”
Another controversial coalition policy has been chancellor George Osborne’s decision to take an axe to the welfare budget – a whopping £18 billion of cuts have been scheduled so far. Is Hughes, an inner-city MP as well as a self-proclaimed progressive, okay with that?
“I’m not ‘okay’ with it,” he insists, before reverting to the standard coalition talking points: “[W]e had to deal with the triple problem left to us by the bankers, the international situation and the outgoing government”.
He says there were “some [welfare reforms] that were justifiable in principle, like the [cap] on benefits because actually it wasn’t a sellable proposition for people to be having hugely more in benefits than people on average earnings.” I try and interrupt him to point out that a “sellable proposition” has little to do with a principled argument but he carries on.
“On various occasions I have said [to ministers]: ‘This far and no further,’” claims Hughes, adding: “I don’t have to say the government is wonderful because I’m not in the government.”
Freezing benefits for two years, as suggested by Treasury sources in recent days, for example, would be "unacceptable", he declares, putting him on a potential collision course with his party leader who is said to be prepared to back the move.
Newspaper reports also suggest chancellor George Osborne is considering slashing the welfare budget by a further £10 billion but Hughes tells me that the policy has not yet been agreed by the Lib Dems and he personally would be "unlikely to vote for a freeze across the board in benefits".
“We are coming to the crucial period as to where we go now. If more money has to be found there are many in our party and beyond who would say it ought not to be people at the bottom of the heap,” he says. "It would be unacceptable to me that we ask people on the lowest incomes to take more of a hit when we have the biggest disparity in wealth and income that we have had in all of your lifetime and mine."
For Hughes, the gap between the "haves and have-nots" needs to be closed and so it is the "very rich" that should "pay a significantly bigger amount" in taxes – a view shared by plenty of disillusioned left-wingers inside his party.
"There’s a perfectly proper debate to have as to what the uprating formula is for benefits," he says "There’s a much bigger debate in which that has to be centred, which is: Who pays the price?"
Hughes adds: "I can assure you that there are pretty intense discussions going on leading up to the autumn statement in December about where the additional cuts will come."
Are there also “intense discussions” going on inside the Lib Dems about the future of Nick Clegg? A recent Populus poll revealed that the deputy prime minister’s personal satisfaction rating was at its lowest ever – for the first time, a majority (51%) of Lib Dem supporters were dissatisfied with their own party leader.
Hughes has what sounds like a pre-prepared answer: “Halfway through most parliaments since I have been here, we have not been on 25% in the opinion polls; we have been much lower than that. Secondly, governments halfway through terms are generally not as popular as they were [at the start].” He is in full flow: “Don’t judge the party or its leader or its prospects halfway through. You look at these things at the end of term. Nick has led us into government for the first time in our lifetimes…he has done amazing things…”
So, come 2015, Vince Cable won’t be taking charge in order to give the Lib Dems a change of avoiding electoral annihilation? “Vince is a hugely helpful ally [to Nick], as are others. I see no circumstances… in which Nick won’t want to stand again at the next election and that Vince and other colleagues won’t support him to do that. We will have a record and we will be judged on what we have delivered.”
But, I persist, if Nick Clegg did decide to quit politics, who would be his replacement? Would Hughes consider running again for the party leadership? “I doubt it very much,” he says, laughing. “I’ve done it twice. I know Ken Clarke has done it three times but he didn’t win the third time.”
So he’s ruling out? “I honestly cant imagine the circumstances…,” he begins, a classic politician’s non-denial denial. He tries again: “I don’t have any ambition to be the party leader. I’ve seen how difficult it is at close quarters, especially in government.”
He sounds like he feels sorry for Clegg, and the criticism and abuse that the Lib Dem leader has had to endure. “Yeah I do feel sorry for him,” says his deputy. “But the interesting thing is that I think things have changed in a way, unexpectedly, since the end of the summer term here.” Clegg’s decision to respond to the failure of Lords reform by pledging to block the Tories’ boundary changes “immediately allowed the party to recover from the sense that it had a big black cloud over it”.
Is he saying that the humiliating defeat over Lords reform may have been a blessing in disguise for Britain’s beleaguered third party?
Hughes nods. “It will have proved to have helped us, paradoxically.” Clegg, adds Hughes, is now “much chirpier. I think you will see and hear Nick, at conference, explaining how, having gone through the fire, we know where we’re going and the party is much more confident about getting there.”
The party’s deputy leader may be confusing confidence with overconfidence. After all, in preparation for the annual conference in Brighton, the Lib Dems have produced a leaflet entitled, “What have the Liberal Democrats ever done for you?”, and containing a list of “achievements” in which, to quote the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan, “star billing goes to the mansion tax, which is still at the proposal stage”.
So, will we see a mansion tax on houses worth more than £2 million enshrined in law before the end of this parliament? Hughes pauses. “The answer is, on balance, I think it will happen… It came near to being on the agenda, and agreed, for the Budget this year.” A mansion tax by 2015? I can already hear the shrieks from right-wing Tory backbenchers, whose constituencies tend to be disproportionately dotted with mansions.
Labour’s Ed Balls has said he would be willing to consider such a levy if the party formed a coalition with the Lib Dems after the next election and has even called for direct talks with Vince Cable on the issue. Meanwhile, earlier this month, it emerged that Cable and Labour leader Ed Miliband had been exchanging texts – a revelation that prompted the former Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell to criticise the business secretary for undermining the Con-Lib coalition. Which side of the argument is Hughes on – Cable’s or Campbell’s?
“I’m not going to get into that debate,” he says, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. Hughes, however, does seem keen to point out that more and more Labour MPs have been coming to see him and have “a chat”: “They’re not stupid: they can read the opinion polls and they know what might happen after the next election.”
Does he still hanker for a “progressive alliance” between the two parties?
“Of course I want a progressive alliance,” he insists, leaning forward again. “Obviously there won’t be the same progressive alliance with the Tory party as there would be with enlightened people on the left.”
In recent weeks, both Nick Clegg and party president Tim Farron have issued statements suggesting they would be open to a deal with Labour in 2015. Is Britain’s third party re-positioning itself and looking leftwards again? Its deputy leader shakes his head: “Look, we’ve never had a predisposition to go into a coalition with the Tories rather than Labour.” But, Hughes points out, “there is a difference between Lib Dem members, who are tens of thousands, and Lib Dem voters who are [in the] millions. And our voters don’t come nearly as comprehensively from the centre-left or left as our members do.”
Nor, for that matter, do members of the Lib Dem ministerial team. Clegg, Ed Davey, Danny Alexander, David Laws, Jeremy Browne – these Orange Bookers all seem much more comfortable in coalition with the Conservatives than they would with the Labour Party.
Hughes is intelligent, experienced, articulate, ambitious. So why not take a ministerial job and try and influence this centre-right government from within? It was reported that he turned down a job as deputy leader of the Commons in the recent reshuffle.
He tells me that one of the reasons he didn’t accept a job in government in the recent reshuffle so that he is free to speak his mind to “any [Lib Dem] minister from Nick downwards”.
In the days after the general election, says Hughes, he had a conversation with Clegg and Cable – the then deputy leader – and the three of them agreed it would be “sensible” for the Lib Dems’ deputy leader to be outside of government, in order to “hold the party together”. Cable stood down and Hughes was elected in his place (and recently re-elected as deputy leader, unopposed).
Since we are on the subject of ministerial jobs and reshuffles, does he agree with the argument made by outspoken Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott that George Osborne should have been moved out of the Treasury? “This may surprise you [but] given that the big issue for us was whether we were internationally credible in our financial strategy, actually, it would have been the wrong time to move the chancellor. It would have sent all sorts of signals that the policy had been wrong.”
Hughes calls Oakeshott a “maverick” and makes a startlingly honest admission: “We signed up for the [austerity] policy, co-equally with the Tories.”
The Lib Dems’ deputy leader acknowledges that the reshuffle has produced a “lurch to the right” in the cabinet – singling out the appointment, among others, of “right-wing” Owen Paterson to the Department of Environment – but argues that the coalition’s “policies are not governed by who is in which job in the cabinet”. On the recent row over the coalition’s decision to rule out a third runway at Heathrow, Hughes is clear: “There cannot be any backsliding from a commitment: no to a third runway at Heathrow.”
He rejects a recent report in the Mail on Sunday that Nick Harvey, the former Lib Defence defence minister, was sacked from the MoD in the reshuffle “to allow Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to sign Britain up to an Israeli-US preventive strike to take out Iran’s nuclear installations.”
Does the Lib Dem manifesto promise to “oppose military action against Iran” still stand? “Absolutely.” And would he vote against British involvement in any military action against the Islamic Republic? “I would oppose it,” declares Hughes. “I am clear that we have to be positive and engaged with Iran, a fundamentally very civilized and well-educated and highly advanced country.”
None of the Lib Dems’ cabinet-level positions were altered during the reshuffle. But, I tell Hughes, I’ve never understood why the party didn’t insist on being given control of one of the big departments of government during the coalition negotiations. The Treasury, the Home Office, the FCO, Health, Education, Work and Pensions, Defence, Transport – all of these are in the hands of Conservative secretaries of state. Why, for instance, didn’t Clegg take a department for himself, such as the Home Office? Does he agree? “My honest view is yes. With hindsight it would have been better to have a different allocation of departments.” Hughes adds an important caveat, however: “The deal Nick did…was a really good deal…to make sure he has a say, basically, in all domestic policy as well as in all foreign policy…nothing can be agreed unless Cameron and Clegg agree it.”
What does he make of claims from disgruntled Tory right-wingers that his party has far too much power and influence inside the coalition? Backbench MP Brian Binley recently referred to the prime minister as the Lib Dems’ “chambermaid”.
Hughes chuckles. “Of course it encourages our troops hugely.” But the Lib Dem backbencher also has a serious message for his Conservative counterparts: “My message back to the Tories is: ‘Look guys, had there not been a deal, you would not be in a majority government; you would have been open to the risk of being voted out in time…[A]nd now, look at the polls, what are the options for you?’
It’s time to wrap up the interview. I tell the Lib Dems’ deputy leader that we can’t finish without me asking him one rather obvious, if vitally important, question: when does his party plan to begin the process of disengagement from the coalition?
He laughs: “I thought that would be the question…I’ll give you the genuine answer. No decisions have yet been made.” He continues: “I don’t sense any mood to change the plan, which is that the coalition is a five-year deal. But clearly once you get into the last year there needs to be a plan to make it clear how you are seen to be two different parties in the run-up to the 2015 general election.”
I remind him that the influential Tory MP Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, has said he thinks it is "very likely" the coalition will break up as much as a year before the next general election. Hughes shakes his head. “Look, the reason why that won’t happen…[is] if we are going to maximise the chances of our re-election, bluntly, we have to make sure that we do things to improve the economic position of our electorate right up until the last moment. For us to walk away from or separate from the process of making sure we get the best budgets of 2012 and 2015…would be nonsense.”
So is he saying that the Lib Dems will be part of a coalition with the Conservatives right up until the prime ministe fires the starting gun for the May 2015 election campaign? “ My instinct is [the break] will be very late in the day… We have to be there right till the end making sure we deliver as much as possible. Therefore the logic is that we stay there in coalition till the end.”
It is, of course, a logic that could cost the Lib Dems dear.