John Rentoul: The public is ahead of Brown on cuts

Labour and Conservatives talk airily about 'difficult choices' and 'fiscal responsibility', but Nick Clegg has a list

Share
Related Topics

Something unexpected happened in the House of Commons last week, only no one noticed because we were laughing at the Prime Minister. He got his parties muddled and said: "It is the Liberal Party that wants to cut public expenditure, not the Cons – not the Labour Party." At this point Hansard recorded an "interruption". How funny it was that Gordon Brown had tripped over his own ridiculous attempt to accuse the opposition parties of wanting "10 per cent cuts" in public spending.

No one noticed that the Prime Minister had expressed a surprising truth. Who is the most convincing axe-man? Which party is most serious about deep and specific cuts in public spending? It is not Cave-Man Dave and his Prehistoric Thatcherites; it is Nick Clegg and the nice "Liberal Party", as Brown insists on calling them – a completely pointless and unwounding supposed insult.

Because there was such a hooting at the Prime Minister fluffing his lines, we missed the importance of what came next. Clegg told the Prime Minister: "Today, new figures from the EU have been published that show that we have the largest underlying deficit anywhere in Europe. Why does he not admit that balancing the nation's books will take big, difficult, long-term decisions?... We are setting out what needs to happen – unlike him, and unlike the Leader of the Opposition – on Trident, on baby bonds, and on tax credits for high-income families."

David Cameron, accused by Brown of being hell-bent on cutting spending, has not been anything like as specific. Gordon Brown, whose Chancellor set out the spending plans which imply the very "10 per cent cuts" which the Tories are accused of wanting, has been even less specific about how the Government's budget is going to be brought back into balance.

Cameron has been preparing the ground with general declarations of "fiscal responsibility". Brown and his Cabinet have been talking about "difficult choices". Ben Bradshaw, the new Culture Secretary, talks of them in his interview with this newspaper today. But it is Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats that have actually been making them.

And they are difficult. Cancel Trident? Suddenly Conservatives who are happy talking in general terms about shrinking the size of the state decide it is essential. And New Labourites who take their cue from Bill Clinton decide that he was a "national security" Democrat more than he was a "balanced budget" one.

There has been a macho tendency among members of the shadow cabinet recently to declare that the Cameron government will be very unpopular very quickly because it will have to impose the deep cuts set out in Labour's plans. But where will the axe fall? Except that NHS spending has been protected, along with the international development budget (which is tiny), we don't know.

All we know is that George Osborne, the shadow Chancellor, will convene a "two-day emergency cabinet session soon after the Tories gain power", according to "shadow cabinet sources" quoted last week. I suspect Cameron and Osborne's plans are a little more advanced than that – not least because they appreciate some of the complexities of which the "shadow cabinet sources" seem unaware.

One is that Cameron is likely to be an unusually weak prime minister. He will continue the trend of the past 12 years. For all that Tony Blair was attacked as an elective dictator, he ceded more power than any of his predecessors, handing the power to set interest rates to the Bank of England and deferring in more and more areas to advice from officials and independent experts. Cameron intends to give up even more scope for making economic decisions to an independent Office of Budget Responsibility, which will be charged with balancing the government's books. So even if Cameron has specified few of the cuts he will make, he is committed to creating the mechanism that will force him to make them.

Not only that, but a Conservative government is likely to have a small majority or no majority at all. I assume that the Labour Party will recover from its current trough of unpopularity, by which I mean that it replaces Brown with Alan Johnson.

That is why Clegg's intervention was so significant. Until now, I had assumed that the Lib Dems would be closer to Labour in a hung parliament on the core issues of tax and spending. Indeed, Clegg told me last week that Brown's "defence of the indefensible" was obscuring the "common ground" between the two parties. "We must not make cuts that imperil the life chances of the next generation," he said, making the case for protecting spending on young children.

But Clegg's larger point is that the public mood has changed. He has been shaken by the party's private polling, which found a striking number of voters who say, when asked who is to blame for the economic crisis: "We all are." This adds texture to the numbers in a YouGov poll last week, which found 79 per cent accepted the need for "less public spending" in order to balance the nation's finances.

In this climate, Brown may have misjudged his dividing line. When he accuses his opponents of wanting 10 per cent cuts in public spending, the voters might say, "Yes, please." Clegg said that the vast overhang of the national debt – approaching the levels accumulated during the Second World War – "will dominate politics possibly for as long as I'm active in it".

So while he is not in favour of cuts in public spending this year – contrary to Brown's attempt to pretend that he is – he is likely to fight the election on a more explicit programme of public spending cuts than the Conservatives. And it may be that a Cameron government, even a minority administration, will not only be required by its own watchdog to make deep cuts in public spending, and be able to do so with Liberal Democrat support, but it may not be unpopular if it succeeds.

John Rentoul's blog is at www.independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Plant Fitter - Construction Industry

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This well established construction equipment d...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitm...

Recruitment Genius: Factory Operatives

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This high quality thread manufacturer ba...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bahrainis on an anti-government protest in May  

Hussain Jawad's detainment and torture highlights Britain's shameless stance on Bahraini rights

Emanuel Stoakes
August 1923: Immigrants in a dining hall on Ellis Island, New York.  

When will the Church speak up for the dispossessed, and those that our political system leaves behind?

Stefano Hatfield
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003