Nick Clegg promised to “hardwire fairness” into society while taking power from “those who hoard it” as he launched the Liberal Democrat manifesto on Wednesday morning.
Speaking at Bloomberg’s headquarters in the City, Mr Clegg sketched out an “environmentally-sustainable” future of “ambition” and “opportunity” unhampered by corrupt politicians and venal financiers.
Mr Clegg also set out his claim to be the most honest party leader over the size of Britain’s deficit, the scale of which will prompt major cuts to departments whoever is in power for the next half-decade.
Labour and the Conservatives had both “air-brushed” the deficit out of their manifestos ahead of the May 6 election. “They are treating people like fools,” he said.
He insisted that the Lib Dem manifesto was fully costed in terms of the savings needed to pay for its £17bn income tax cut.
“This is the first time a party has spelt out its figures, line by line, in its manifesto,” he claimed. “Our manifesto recognizes that the world has changed?... people have got to be leveled with. It’s wrong to promise something for nothing.”
Mr Clegg said a vote for his party was not a wasted vote, repeating his argument – used in an interview with the BBC earlier this week – that one in four people backed the Lib Dems in 2005.
However, most commentators do not expect the third party significantly to extend its tally of 63 seats in Westminster. Instead, Mr Clegg’s chances of exercising any power lie more in the chance of a hung parliament.
Vince Cable, Lib Dem Treasury spokesman, agreed that the deficit had been barely mentioned in the launches of the Tory and Labour manifestos. That would not be the case with his party, which would impose tough pay discipline, some cuts to welfare benefits and an end to bonuses in the public sector.
The deficit had become the “elephant in the room”, said Mr Cable. “It may be I’m the elephant man.”
“Nick Clegg and I decided last year when the scale of the problem became apparent ... that we were going to have to confront this and there was absolutely no value in preparing for an election where the parties would do their best impression of Father Christmas,” said Mr Cable. “This was not honest and not plausible.”
The party has produced an itemized list of cuts which would have to be made in the next parliament. Other Lib Dem commitments would be put on ice until finances allowed it, Mr Cable admitted.
Mr Cable outlined cuts to some defense budgets and financial savings from ending some “surveillance society” programs such as ID cards.
He also said money could be saved by scrapping regional development agencies, “Train to Gain” and Homebuy schemes for first-time buyers. In total, his calculations could save about £10bn a year he said – though he admitted this did not tackle the £70bn structural deficit in the economy.
While the government had already introduced tax increases of £20bn there was still a £15bn gap to halve this deficit.
“We have to go beyond that, we talk about public sector pension reform ... We recommend a rapid defense review,” he said. “There has to be a fundamental change in the vast outlay government makes on IT programs.”
However, he was unable to flesh out the details of these policies, only indicate their direction.
Mr Cable’s central fiscal policy is the proposal to cut income tax through an increase in the tax-free personal allowance from £6,475 to £10,000. This would have to be paid for by a new mansions tax, equalizing capital gains tax, changing pensions tax relief and aircraft duties and fiddling with several other taxes. These include anti-avoidance measures beyond anything currently recouped by the Treasury each year.
Dismissing a report in the Times on Wednesday that the Lib Dems would put up taxes, he said the only existing policy for a specifically higher tax was a new levy on banks.
The Lib Dem manifesto says that the party would eliminate the deficit through spending cuts.
“If, in order to protect fairness, sufficient cuts could not be found, tax rises would be a last resort,” it says.