Cabinet chums are all smiles now but wait until the big squeeze begins

The mood around the cabinet table when ministers gathered on Tuesday for the first time since their summer break was remarkably jolly. You wouldn't guess that two parties were represented.

Eric Pickles, the burly Tory Communities Secretary, used to describe Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat Climate Change Secretary, as "that bloke who always interrupts me when we appear on TV". Now they sit opposite each other in Cabinet and Mr Pickles says: "I agree with Chris." The feeling is mutual; ministers are pleasantly surprised about how often they agree with their coalition partners.

This Cabinet of chums reminds old Tory hands of the days of John Major. And yet the wiser heads know that the mood will change soon. In five weeks, ministers must agree spending cuts deeper than anything attempted in modern times. In Whitehall, there is frantic activity as the Treasury tells departments it is not satisfied with their opening offer and tells them to come back with bigger cuts.

The squeeze is bound to pit minister against minister. With most under orders to trim their budgets by 25 per cent, there are fears some will make indiscriminate cuts which put more financial pressure on another department and become a false economy. An all-powerful Star Chamber chaired by the Chancellor will consider "cross-cutting issues" affecting more than one department to try to prevent this.

Yet the biggest worry behind the cabinet smiles is that the Coalition Government has not prepared the public for the cuts. Opinion polling presented to ministers shows that voters recognise the £155bn deficit is a huge problem that must be addressed. Many people blame Labour for it. But the problem for the Coalition is that people think the cuts have happened because George Osborne announced them in his emergency Budget in June. "They think it's all over, but it has hardly begun," one cabinet minister said. No wonder the Budget was popular; it was virtually pain-free. The pain may start to dawn on 20 October when the Chancellor announces spending totals for each department, and will certainly be felt from the start of the financial year next April, by when ministers will have to decide how they will stick to their tight limits.

Ministers agree that they need to do some groundwork, and quickly. They also acknowledge the need to talk up a reform agenda that is more radical than they have been credited for – on health, education and welfare. Perhaps the biggest danger to the Coalition is being seen as a one-issue government, and that all the voters notice are nasty cuts. Trumping the cuts with reforms won't be easy, but ministers have resolved to try.

The initial responses from departments are seen as "variable" by the Treasury. Some have adopted a traditional salami-slicing approach that is unlikely to deliver 25 per cent cuts. Others have won plaudits by linking reforms and savings. The star pupil so far is Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary. He is using the need for cuts to argue that "we can't go on as we are" with a failed sentencing policy which results in an ever-bulging prison population. He believed that anyway but the deficit gives him powerful ammunition, even though many Tory MPs will feel uneasy about allowing Labour to look harder than their party on law and order.

Nick Clegg began the mission to explain in a speech on Thursday, when he spoke about a "horizon shift" so that the Government takes decisions for the long term even though they can be difficult and painful in the short run.

David Cameron will outline a parallel "power shift" from the state to people and communities.

It's not an easy sell. The Deputy Prime Minister sent some decidedly mixed signals when answering questions about his speech. While preparing the nation for "difficult, painful or unpopular" cuts, he said the Coalition had to rise above the immediate bad headlines. He also tried to allay fears about the cuts, saying they would happen over four years, not overnight, and were not "dramatically different" to what Labour would have done. He sounded rather like a man trying to have it all ways. Clearly, further work is required here to make a rather fuzzy message much clearer.

The Health and International Development budgets are protected, while the Education and Defence departments have to draw up options for 10 and 20 per cent cuts, and the other ministries 25 and 40 per cent. So there is bound to be blood on the Cabinet Room carpet. For every minister who wins an argument with the Treasury, there will have to be a loser elsewhere. Mr Osborne's 20 October statement may well be portrayed as a game of cabinet winners and losers, as much of the detail may not emerge until next spring.

The carrot of a seat on the Star Chamber is being offered to ministers who settle their budgets with the Treasury. A clever wheeze: rewarding the good boys and girls and allowing them to impose cuts on their "colleagues", although some ministers are insisting they won't be rushed into bad decisions.

Ministers who can't reach a deal can appeal to the Star Chamber, the Prime Minister and the full Cabinet. The Coalition Committee which settles disputes between the Tories and Liberal Democrats is on standby. It may well be needed.

"We are in the calm before the storm," one cabinet minister said. "It is not going to last long." The Cabinet of chums may soon be at each other's throats.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Fans hold up a scarf at West Ham vs Liverpool
footballAfter Arsenal's clear victory, focus turns to West Ham vs Liverpool
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
News
news
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Sport
football
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam