This Issue Really Will Destroy The Coalition... Won't It?

Clegg has, very publicly, ahead of the next budget, urged Chancellor George Osborne to speed up coalition plans to take the lowest earners out of income tax, and to pay for this by taxing richer people

There was only one story this week, about the biggest challenge to the coalition, and it threatens to tear them apart. While all the newspapers and TV news prattled on about RBS and bonuses and knighthoods, and yes we all had lots of fun, me included - "Stephen Hester? Too big to fail", "Fred Bad Lose" - there was a genuinely big story and we nearly all missed it. Why? Because at its centre was a man who nobody has ever heard of - at least not recently - called Nick Clegg.

Clegg has, very publicly, ahead of the next budget, urged Chancellor George Osborne to speed up coalition plans to take the lowest earners out of income tax, and to pay for this by taxing richer people. While Europe has always threatened to bring the coalition down, it's a subject far more likely to tear the Tories apart internally. Taxing the rich to pay for public spending is something all Tories can agree is evil, and they thought they'd heard the end of such talk the day they signed up to power sharing with the LibDems.

Imagine if, at the height of Blair's Prime Ministership, John Prescott had come out in public and urged Gordon Brown to... I dunno, speed up plans to take the lowest earners out of income tax. Imagine the Dacres of newsprint that split would have generated. I'm not sure Labour would have survived such an onslaught. But because it was Nick Clegg, the story died a death.

Type the word 'Clegg' into BBC news search and the first result that comes up is 'Clegg Hall', a grade two listed mansion near Manchester. That's right, Nick Clegg is lower down the BBC News search list of important Cleggs than a building partially restored in 2008 but awaiting funds for further work. Am I losing you now? Maybe, although according to the BBC you're still more likely to want to know about this than the current Deputy Prime Minister of the UK.

First off Clegg is calling for a mansion tax on houses worth more than £2million. That should be the perfect tax to bring in, and would give us the chance to properly test those people who threaten to leave the country every time they're asked to pay a penny more of tax. Either their bluff will be called, and they'll stay put and pay, or they really will leave, which would kickstart the housing boom Cameron is so desperate for.

What is it about Nick Clegg that inspires such overwhelming indifference in the country? There's the conspiracy theory that the British press, owned mainly by a tiny collection of right wing 'characters', pick off all threats to the Conservatives by any means possible. So the bile and personal attacks that spewed his way last year abated only when he was totally defeated, and is focused now on Ed Miliband.

Although it's true that, unlike the rest of the country, a majority of editors and columnists are right-wing, their newspapers tend to express only what most people are thinking. Clegg's credibility was blown the minute he signed up to Osborne's back-of-a-fag-packet austerity plans, which days earlier his own party had savaged far more successfully than Labour ever managed.

A senior Liberal Democrat said there was nothing unusual about what Clegg said, the mansion tax was, after all, in the Lib Dem Manifesto. Although that sacred tome, earnestly agreed in dingy back-offices over late night takeaways and presented to the country as the true Lib Dem path, made no mention of signing up to the ludicrous Conservative economic non-policy, except to point out that it was ludicrous.

Clegg is talking openly now of paying for the cuts by taxing the rich, which he only ever used to say in Labour marginal seats to win over disaffected left-wing voters. I may be misinterpreting something here, but his call, regarding who should pay the taxes, to "choose between the hard-working many or the high earning few" sounds far more radical than anything I've heard from any senior Labour politician in the last 20 years.

Clegg says he wants to go further and faster, and asked where the money comes from he said: 'The top. There are many loopholes and allowances, which only really benefit wealthy people.' As indeed the son of the chairman of United Trust Bank is sure to know better than most.

So we now have the ridiculous situation where the junior coalition partners, who have more power than they dare admit, are more radical than the opposition about tax and spend. The Lib Dems have signed up to Duncan Smith's welfare cuts and seem unlikely to oppose Lansley's Health bill. Are they ready yet to grow a spine? And is Ed Miliband ready to help them? I think Clegg Hall may be purchased sooner.


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