Nick Clegg faced angry questions over the coalition Government's £18bn raid on benefits yesterday, amid signs that Liberal Democrats were growing nervous about the effect the austerity measures would have on their party.
Most senior party figures have remained loyal over the programme of cuts outlined on Wednesday, claiming that spending would have been slashed even further without the influence of Liberal Democrat Cabinet ministers, or that Labour would have been forced to introduce similar measures.
But the Deputy Prime Minister was confronted with the reality that his party would take its share of the blame for the spending squeeze when a multiple sclerosis sufferer accused him of "picking on the weakest people in society".
Margaret Lynch, 52, told Mr Clegg and David Cameron during an event in Nottingham that she would lose benefits under measures brought in to reduce Britain's budget deficit. She said spending cuts would have a huge impact on social care for the disabled.
"You're really picking on the weakest people in society and it's completely unfair how you're applying these budget cuts," she said, adding that her local council had told her she would have to start paying for care services.
Mrs Lynch, who has used an electric wheelchair for the past four years, said her £50 weekly allowance would be cut in half by the cost of paying for the services."They say they've ring-fenced the NHS but, in terms of care services, because the councils have been so badly hit, it's going to have a big impact," she said.
Mr Clegg attempted to ease her concerns by saying extra money had been made available for social care, adding voters needed to "have a little bit of perspective" about how the Coalition had tried to protect the poorest. He accused Labour of trying to "frighten people".
"[Fairness is] literally the question I have been asking myself every single day of this very difficult process we have been going through," he said. "People do not only think of themselves as recipients of benefits. In the real world it is the richest that are paying the most – about that there is no doubt at all."
However, Mrs Lynch later said she did not understand Mr Clegg's justification. "It's extremely expensive being disabled and it's going to get more expensive," she said. "I've got a specially adapted car which costs a lot to run.
"There are other options. We could increase taxation. What about the Robin Hood tax on the banks? They need to find a way of protecting this particular budget."
Last night, the clearest evidence to date emerged that the Liberal Democrats were being punished by voters for their involvement in the Coalition. A poll for The Sun by YouGov found support had plummeted to just 10 per cent. Meanwhile, they found the Tories were unscathed by the cuts programme, with the party on 41 per cent.
Frustrations are rising among some in Mr Clegg's party. Lord Greaves, a Liberal Democrat peer, said that while ministers from his party had won battles in the run-up to the spending review, they needed to be bolder in pointing out Tory measures they disliked.
"It is not a failure in what we have done, it is a failure in our ability to communicate the victories we have achieved," he said. "We don't just need to be braver when the Tories are pushing for something we do not like. We need to be banging the drum."
He also said the huge cut to local councils would have a "devastating effect" on services and that there would have to be a rethink over funding. "The idea that local Government can cope with this kind of situation for four years is not credible," he said. "Something will have to change."
Liberal Democrat peers and MPs met on Wednesday night to talk over the spending review details. Though some were said to be upset by the speed of the cuts, most said the party was determined to remain united.Reuse content