Andrew Grice: Budget cuts mean the coalition charm offensive is over

Inside Politics

Share
Related Topics

Fifty days into their coalition, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have been taking stock. They would both have settled with being where they are today and, if they were being honest, might even have settled for a bit less.

The Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders have bonded and joke that they get on "20 times better than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown". Not their most difficult task, perhaps. But the coalition leaders guessed that the honeymoon would end with this week's Budget and it did.

The time for jokes and smiles was long gone and their faces were stern – even older – when they took questions on a BBC programme on Wednesday from voters upset about the looming spending cuts. It brought a rare moment of apparent disharmony near the end, when they simultaneously tried to make a point and talked across each other like the rival politicians they were in the election TV debates.

In fact, Mr Cameron was merely trying to ride to the rescue of the man he jokingly calls "my civil partner". He thought it would be more helpful to Mr Clegg if he gave the Liberal Democrats the full credit for the £1,000 rise in personal tax allowances rather than for Mr Clegg to claim it.

The Prime Minister is well aware that his deputy is often seen as his human shield for the deep cuts announced by George Osborne in the Budget. He thinks it's partly a media judgment as people such as me, raised on a diet of stories about splits within parties, look for the inevitable tensions in the coalition. But there's no smoke without fire and plenty of Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs think that Mr Clegg's party is providing invaluable cover for the cuts.

There are real jitters among senior Liberal Democrat MPs over the VAT rise and the cuts which they fear, contrary to the coalition's spin, will hurt the poorest hardest. They worry that Mr Osborne may not have a Plan B if his gamble – that the private sector will fill the public-sector gap to produce exports and growth – does not pay off.

Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg decided early on that they would rather aim high through trade-offs and give-and-take than implement only what their parties agreed on at the outset. One example was the Tories accepting the rise in tax thresholds in return for the Liberal Democrats swallowing Tory plans for welfare reform.

These changes, being drawn up by Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, are likely to target the sick and disabled – an area conspicuously missing from the £11bn down-payment on welfare cuts in the Budget. This was not because they will not happen but because they will be worked up over the summer.

The Cameroons believe the coalition, with an in-built Commons majority of about 70, can achieve more radical things than a Tory Government with a narrow majority could have done. But that doesn't mean that they didn't want to win last time or that they don't want to win outright next time after winning the voter trust they failed to secure in opposition.

The two leaders think Labour's attacks on them drive them even closer together and believe that Labour, which unwisely seems intent on opposing every spending cut, will marginalise itself by vacating the centre ground.

But even if the Cameron-Clegg love-in lasts and the coalition holds, the leaders believe their two parties will fight the next election as opponents, not in any electoral pact.

Not all the coalition's boxes have been ticked yet. Both leaders are impatient to talk about reforms, and give a dangerous impression to the voters that looks like they are obsessed with cuts. Mr Cameron wants to translate his rhetoric about creating a "big society", which failed to enthuse the voters during the election campaign, into some tangible, decentralising public service reforms. There will be a raft of announcements over the summer months.

Mr Clegg, meanwhile, needs to throw some meat on political reform to his own party. A date for a referendum on changing the voting system at general elections, probably next May, will be announced soon.

The Liberal Democrat leader also wants a guarantee that if people vote in favour of the alternative-vote system, it would definitely be introduced by the next election.

The Budget was skilfully presented by Mr Osborne. His allies rightly liken him to a chess player who sees several moves ahead. He told it pretty straight, even if overplaying his claim that his package was "progressive". The instant opinion polls were surprisingly favourable; the public know that something must be done about the deficit.

I suspect the polls will be less favourable when the detail emerges in October of the 25 per cent average cuts outside the protected health and overseas-aid budgets, not to mention the further welfare cuts. It will be harder to call it a progressive Budget then.

One Cameroon said: "We don't want this government to be all about cuts, cuts, cuts." They are likely to be disappointed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - South West

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Administrator - IT - Fixed Term, Part Time

£17340 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Come and join one of the UK's leading ca...

Recruitment Genius: Property Sales Consultant - Chinese Speaking - OTE £70,000

£18000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity for a Fluent Chines...

Recruitment Genius: AV Installation Engineer

£27000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to business growth, this is...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Refugees try to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, near Gevgelija, on Wednesday. The town sits on the ‘Balkan corridor’ used by refugees, mostly from Syria, to travel from Turkey to Hungary, the gateway to the EU  

The UK response to the plight of Syrian refugees is a national embarrassment

Kevin Watkins
The provincial capital of Idlib, Syria, which fell to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra last week  

'I was sure I’d be raped or killed. I was terrified': My life as a gay Syrian refugee who had to flee Isis

Subhi Nahas
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent