Clegg incurs wrath of Sugar over free pensioner bus passes
Lib Dem leader can brush off Lord Sugar's insults, but it's the middle classes he needs to worry about
NICK CLEGG has triggered a row with a rich pensioner - Apprentice boss Lord Sugar - by singling out the Labour peer in his "tax the rich" strategy ahead of the Lib Dem leader's keynote conference speech today.
Clegg, whose conference theme is fairer taxes in hard times, offered a populist bone to his party members, including communities minister Don Foster who called for universal benefits such as free TV licences, bus passes and winter fuel allowances to be cut for rich pensioners.
Clegg ruled out any change until after the next election, but said: "There's a question mark on whether people such as Peter Stringfellow or Alan Sugar have available to them free bus passes, subsidised by normal workers paying normal taxes and struggling to make ends meet."
Sugar retorted in a tweet: "The twit Nick Clegg moaning about me having a bus pass. Idiot I haven't got one."
Sir Alan continued: "Even if I did have a bus pass I've personally paid tens of millions in tax, and my companies hundreds of millions in the past 45 years. What has Clegg done?
"I wonder if Nick Clegg's rich wife will take her bus pass when she becomes of age, and if he will take his EU pension. The man is embaresment [sic]."
The Deputy Prime Minister might brush off Sugar but if he goes too far in punishing the middle classes to shore up his own shaky leadership position after his betrayal of students over tuition fees, he risks unnerving his potential future allies in Labour, including Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor.
Under former PM Gordon Brown, Labour increased the upper rate of income tax on the rich to 50p - something Tony Blair resisted - but it drew the line at taking universal benefits off pensioners, rich or otherwise, because unlike teenage activists worried about student fees, pensioners actually bother to vote. And the grey vote is getting bigger.
Clegg's team has leaked some of the Lib Dem leader's speech to the Guardian this morning. It says Clegg will send an austere message to his party, telling them the Liberal Democrats are willing to impose several more years of spending restraint.
He will insist they are now anchored in the centre ground and are determined never to revert to being a party of protest and opposition. But the bit they didn't brief on was Clegg's rhetoric about squeezing the rich till pips like Lord Sugar begin to squeak.
His drive to raise taxes on the wealthy to regain the support of his own party has enraged Tory coalition partners, who are privately saying Clegg's tax plans, including the mansion tax, will never be implemented under David Cameron.
One minister told the Mole: "We are not going to agree to any of these tax increases. I've checked with the Treasury team. It's a pack of bollocks. It just isn't going to happen."
The BBC Today programme was reporting this morning he will close the Brighton conference this afternoon by promising to restore the fortunes of his party and the country. But it is unlikely to do much for his own fortunes as party leader. His Tory coalition colleagues believe he is leading the Lib Dems to a general election disaster.