Cable attacks 'ugly' Tory politics
Tensions within the coalition Government have been laid bare as Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister Vince Cable savaged Conservatives for an "ugly" politics of fear and callousness.
Mr Cable's broadside came at the Lib Dems' annual conference in Glasgow, where leader Nick Clegg gave his personal backing to key policies which could feature in the party's manifesto for the 2015 general election - including free bus travel for teenagers and continued protection for NHS and schools budgets.
Mr Clegg saw off a challenge to his authority over economic policy from centre-left activists who wanted to water down the coalition's austerity agenda. But he only narrowly avoided defeat by a margin of four votes on a motion to restore the 50p higher rate of income tax.
At a conference which has been marked by strenuous efforts by Lib Dem ministers to distance themselves from their Conservative coalition partners, Mr Clegg promised activists that every word of the 2015 manifesto would reflect independent Liberal Democrat ideas.
He accused Tories of trying to steal credit for lifting earnings below £10,000 out of income tax, telling the conference: ""We did it, not them. We did it. We must never, ever, ever allow the great progressive reforms that we are introducing in this Government to be appropriated by others."
But it was Mr Cable who most viciously turned his fire against the Tories. The Business Secretary said it was "both brave and absolutely right" to enter coalition at a time of economic emergency.
But he added: "Theresa May once characterised the Tories a decade ago as the nasty party. After a few years trying to be nice and inclusive it has reverted to type. We have got dog-whistle politics, orchestrated by an Australian Rottweiler, we have got hostility to organised labour, people on benefits and immigrant minorities."
Mr Cable said the Conservative Party disapproved of public sector workers, teachers, the unmarried and people who do not own property. Their "prejudices" were explained in part by the advanced age of their members and in part by their belief that in difficult times "fear trumps hope" and "competence requires callousness". "That is not our kind of politics," he said. "It is ugly, and we will not be dragged down by it. That's why our Liberal Democrat message about fairness is absolutely key."
Polls have suggested that Lib Dem activists would prefer to be in coalition with Labour. But Mr Clegg declined to say which of the main parties would be his first choice, and warned activists that any deal would not be easy. He said: "Don't go into coalition if you want to have a nice time. It's not a walk in the park, it is hard work, battling out these compromises."
Answering questions from delegates, Mr Clegg indicated that a further five years of protection for NHS and schools budgets is likely to feature in the Lib Dem election manifesto, despite growing concerns that the "ring-fence" is eating dangerously into the money available for other Government responsibilities, like law and order and welfare.