Andrew Grice: Nick Clegg insists the Coalition can be frugal and fair. We shall see ...

Inside Politics

Share
Related Topics

"Good luck. Carry on cutting with care," David Laws wrote in a note to his successor Danny Alexander when he resigned as Treasury Chief Secretary in May.

In the eyes of some Conservative ministers, the two Liberal Democrats have been cutting with remarkable enthusiasm too. Nick Clegg has set the bar high for the Government-wide spending review, talking up the prospect of "progressive cuts" and repeatedly promising that the Coalition would not repeat the savagery of the Thatcher era by hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.

The Deputy Prime Minister was at it again yesterday, announcing a morsel of good news – a £7bn, four-year package to help disadvantaged children – which would otherwise have been buried in the avalanche of bad news that George Osborne will set rolling in his comprehensive spending review on Wednesday.

"We will not balance the books on the backs of the poor," an upbeat Mr Clegg said in a speech at a Chesterfield junior school. He promised that by the end of the four-year period covered by the review, £2.5bn a year would be spent on a "pupil premium" to enable schools to give extra help to every pupil eligible for free school meals, £300m a year on pre-school education for two-year-olds, and £150m a year on helping bright children from poor backgrounds to go to university.

The Liberal Democrat leader fought hard to squeeze extra money out of the Treasury at a time when it is demanding more for less. But we should wait and see the education settlement as a whole before getting too carried away. The education budget is not protected like the NHS and could be cut by 10 per cent.

Mr Clegg used the word "fairness" 34 times in his 21-minute speech. It is the latest political buzzword. Mind you, I have yet to meet a politician who is against "fairness". I suspect such rhetoric leaves many voters rather cold. When Labour used the slogan "a future fair for all" before the May election, the party's polling showed that some people wondered why it kept banging on about a funfair.

So how you achieve the "long term fairness" Mr Clegg promises to "hard wire" into the system while you are imposing cuts of £83bn? The only option is to spread the pain. "If everyone is throwing rocks at us, we are OK," David Cameron told his Cabinet recently. "We need people to feel they are all in this together."

Mr Clegg's announcement yesterday complemented the decision to axe child benefit for top rate taxpayers. And yet there are bound to be accusations that the poor are being hit hardest because further benefit cuts are inevitable on Wednesday.

Ministers are not losing as much sleep as you might think about the raft of headlines accusing them of clobbering the middle classes. "If people don't think everyone is doing their bit, we are fucked," one admitted yesterday.

Their other challenge is to answer the "Why now?" question. The Coalition has won the argument on the need to tackle the £155bn deficit. It has also succeeded in pinning the blame for the mess on Labour, which has failed to convince people it is all due to the global recession. But private polling discussed by ministers shows that the voters are not convinced about the need to cut so quickly.

It's no surprise. We shouldn't forget that the Liberal Democrats fought the May election on a platform of opposing cuts in this financial year. So 52 per cent of voters (the combined share of Labour and the Liberal Democrats) opposed early cuts while 36 per cent voted for the Tories, the only major party that advocated them.

The same research suggests that voters are open to persuasion about the need to act quickly when told about the need to stop the nation's £43bn-a-year interest bill from spiralling. So ministers are pointing out that interest payments alone could build a primary school every hour or buy a Chinook helicopter every day.

They will stress that they are cutting through necessity, not a desire to slim the state, and are only reducing services and benefits as a last resort. "We have got to show that we left no stone unturned," Mr Cameron told the Cabinet. Hence the squeeze on public sector pay and pensions and the pre-emptive strike against quangos, although the latter proved rather more difficult in practice than the headline-grabbing cull the Tories promised in opposition.

The Liberal Democrats are on an even steeper learning curve in government. They crossed a Rubicon this week when Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, buried the party's election pledge to abolish university tuition fees. He and Mr Clegg knew the promise was unaffordable but failed to persuade the Liberal Democrats to dump it before the election. It was watered down, but the party's manifesto still pledged abolish fees in the sixth year of a Liberal Democrat Government. Which tells us quite a lot about its mindset.

The party has travelled a long way in a short time. Even some Labour MPs quietly admitted that Mr Cable executed his 180-degree turn to supporting a rise in fees with style. "The road to Westminster is covered in the skid marks of political parties changing direction," he said.

It is a difficult manoeuvre for Liberal Democrat MPs – who all signed a pledge to vote against any rise in fees – especially those in university seats. But the backbench rebellion is fading and the fees increase will be approved by the Commons. "I would rather have a well-funded, viable university in my constituency and break the pledge," one MP said. Welcome to government.

The bigger threat to the Liberal Democrats may come from the cuts as a whole. Some of their MPs fret about Mr Osborne's lack of a Plan B if there is a double-dip recession. They fear he is staking all his chips on a private sector recovery that will be harder to secure after such huge public sector cuts.

Mr Clegg has adopted an "in for a penny, in for a pound" approach, signing up to the cuts to maximise his influence on where the axe should fall. The spending review is the product of two equal partners. Several key decisions have been taken by the group that Whitehall officials call "the quad" – Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne, Mr Clegg and Mr Alexander.

Aides say the four have had to walk through fire together and the political bonds between them have strengthened in the process. "It has been the making of the Coalition," one said. If the Chancellor doesn't get the economics right, it could be the breaking of it.

React Now

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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Women are working in some of the lowest-paid sectors such as cleaning, catering and caring  

Women's wages have gone backwards. Labour would give women the pay they deserve

Gloria de Piero
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?