Clegg widens rift with Tories
Clegg widens rift with Tories (Reuters)

It is not usual politics, to say the least, for a deputy prime minister to announce a tax cut he is determined to see in the budget but then admit the prime minister has not agreed to it and has previously opposed such policies.

Welcome to the latest chapter in the coalition government user manual. And this chapter is all about how to break apart a coalition in the run-up to an election campaign.

Liberal Democrat Deputy PM Nick Clegg has confirmed that he is pressing for the lowest rate of income tax to be raised by a further £500 by 2015 to take another 500,000 people out of tax altogether, and he wants Tory Chancellor George Osborne to announce it in his budget next year.

In a phrase that could have been drawn from an Old Labour manifesto, he calls it a "workers' bonus" and has revealed he expects a battle with Cameron.

"Of course I need to persuade my coalition government partners. In the past the Conservatives have had a different set of tax priorities. First inheritance tax cuts for very rich people, then a tax cut at the upper rate of income tax and now the married tax break," he said, carefully suggesting the Tories favour the rich.

His priority, he insisted, was to help those at the bottom. He would ideally meet the £1bn cost of his policy through tackling tax avoidance or taxing what he calls the "super wealthy". But he admitted the Conservatives would not agree to that so other, unspecified ways would have to be found.

Clegg can't lose

Clegg clearly believes he is in a no-lose situation here. If he does indeed manage to do a deal with David Cameron and George Osborne to fund the tax cut he can claim a significant victory for LibDem policies and his own power in coalition.

"It would not have happened if I was not sitting at the cabinet table, pushing the LibDem agenda," he will argue.

He is furious that the current move to raise the tax threshold to £10,000 next year was his policy and was dismissed as unaffordable by Cameron before the last election, but is now spun as a Tory policy. This latest move is part of his campaign to remind people of that and push the agenda further.

On the other hand, if he fails to get agreement from the Tories and the tax cut is not included in next spring's budget he will be able to distance the LibDems further from the Conservatives by repeating his "they always back the rich and powerful" - another echo of the Labour campaign, which could help build bridges with Ed Miliband.

Bur Clegg also revealed the growing public rift between his party and Cameron over how the economy should proceed now the recovery is taking hold.

Many in Westminster have been struck by the language of long-term austerity being used by both Cameron and Osborne, suggesting cuts and smaller state spending will have to continue for decades to come, possibly even permanently.

Clegg claimed this was an ideologically driven campaign to shrink the size of the state, which he did not agree with. He also criticised Labour's spending agenda.

"You appear to have a view from the right (Cameron and the Tories) that taxes should never go up and you should be shrinking the state to an ever smaller size in an ideological way.

"The left are making a mistake in thinking you can repeat all the mistakes of the past and borrow and spend more and more and more and bloating the state," he said.

It was an ideological battle between "cut, cut, cut and bloat, bloat, bloat," he said.

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Clegg also opened a difference with the government over Cameron's plans to launch an inquiry into union behaviour during the bitter Grangemouth industrial dispute.

The investigation will look at whether legislation needs to be strengthened in order to prevent "inappropriate or intimidatory actions" in the course of such disputes.

While the Tories are eager to be seen clamping down on the unions, particularly the powerful, Labour-funding Unite, Clegg said it would be a short independent inquiry looking at irresponsible behaviour of unions and business. LibDem minister Danny Alexander said he was not interested in "union bashing".

What this all amounts to is the latest step in the journey to separate the LibDems from the Tories as the general election campaign moves into top gear.

Both sides know they need to do it in order to be seen as distinct parties, so there will be plenty of LibDem bashing from the Tories over coming months. The danger is that, in slashing away at each other, they start to inflict deep, possibly fatal wounds.