January 10, 2013 6:31 pm

Clegg sees ‘sombre’ outlook for 2015 poll

Nick Clegg on Thursday gave the bleakest assessment yet by a senior minister about the likely economic outlook at the next election, warning that the 2015 poll would be Britain’s “first full-blown scarcity election”.

Mr Clegg said the next election would be “quite sombre, quite gritty” as the country faced up to cuts until 2018 and that all politicians would be forced to make difficult choices.

He said he would be “gobsmacked” if any party fought the next election promising to protect universal pensioner benefits, arguing it was ridiculous for millionaires like Lord Sugar and Peter Stringfellow to receive help with their winter fuel bills.

Mr Clegg’s warning that the next election will be fought in conditions of unprecedented austerity may be contested by those who remember the 1945 election, but it reveals the extent to which the political landscape has shifted.

The deputy prime minister used to share George Osborne’s confidence that the deficit would be tamed by 2015 and that the next election would be fought against a backdrop of rising living standards.

Mr Osborne now envisages an extension of the current pace of spending cuts until 2018; Mr Clegg believes all parties at the next election will be forced into a debate on choices on where the axe should fall.

He said this mood of realism was reflected in a House of Commons speech this week by David Miliband, former foreign secretary, who accepted the coalition’s “envelope” for future welfare cuts although he disagreed with the detail.

Speaking at a lunch with journalists at Westminster, Mr Clegg insisted the Liberal Democrats could do better at the next election than many people thought because of the bleak economic outlook.

“With Labour you can’t trust them with money and with the Tories you can’t trust them with society,” he said. He argued that the Lib Dems had proved themselves tough on the economy and had reined in the Tories on social issues.

Meanwhile Mr Clegg caused some surprise when he confirmed that he wanted Chris Huhne, former energy secretary, “at the top table” and back in the cabinet if he is cleared in a court case about an alleged speeding offence.

Mr Huhne ran against Mr Clegg for the party leadership in 2007 and the two have always been seen as rivals.

The deputy prime minister said his colleague was “formidable, a big beast, very accomplished”.

Mr Clegg refused to comment on the timing of any cabinet return if Mr Huhne is cleared, but the question raises considerable complications given that the Lib Dems are only entitled to five cabinet seats.

The Lib Dem leader will want to keep Danny Alexander, Treasury chief secretary, and Ed Davey, energy secretary, at the cabinet table; he has less cordial relations with Vince Cable but the business secretary is popular in the party.

That would leave Michael Moore, a respected but low-key Scottish secretary as a potential victim, if Mr Huhne were brought back.

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