Mark Steel: If only we were all in it together

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The Independent Online

There's already been one positive outcome of the Budget, which is the pleasure of watching Liberal Democrats squirm as they try to justify the stuff that a few weeks ago they screamed would be a disaster. Tomorrow Clegg will mutter, "Look, when we said the Tories were planning a VAT bombshell, the point we were making was this country needed a VAT bombshell and only the Tories were planning it, but they were too modest in hiding their marvellous bombshell plans, so we were trying to help them. You see."

Then they'll tell us they've ensured the Budget was vicious in a fair way, because now VAT will be at a Liberal Democrat 20 per cent to ensure fairness, rather than the much harsher Tory 20 per cent proposed by George Osborne, a compromise that wouldn't have been possible without the tremendous efforts of Vince Cable.

To their own supporters they'll say, "If we weren't part of the Government it would be even worse", the line always put by liberals in an illiberal government. I bet there were Liberal Democrats in the Spanish Inquisition who said, "Because we're in government, the Queen has included in her bill a pledge to gouge out fingernails first rather than go straight in with the toenails, demonstrating the fairness we are bringing to the new politics."

The Budget has been presented as a necessity, with every measure "unavoidable", backed up by piles of figures that sound apocalyptic but mean nothing by themselves, like "We now owe £800 for every insect in Britain", or "The debt burden is equivalent to 300 years on a premium rate girl-on-girl action chatline" or "The deficit is more than the value of the moon."

But the cuts announced are measures the Tories support anyway, regardless of the state of the economy. For example, Osborne said in his TV speech he would no longer tolerate people who don't work, "Sitting indoors with the blinds pulled down, living on benefits." That's not economic necessity, it's an editorial from the Daily Express. It's an attempt to sound like someone down the pub, and maybe the first draft of his Budget went, "We're in a right mess missus and no mistake, and one knows who's to blame; them layabouts with their blinds down, gawd blimey." Or maybe he just thinks, "My word these unemployed are lazy – they can't even be bothered to get their au pair to open the blinds."

Blaming unemployment on the unemployed for "Choosing not to work" is an ideology that assumes unemployment rises and falls in line with how many people fancy being unemployed. They must think in 1931 the North suddenly decided to close their blinds and stay at home all day, which was probably lucky as by the time the war started they were all jammed shut, which was handy for the blackout.

But it's a doctrine, not a "necessity". Chris Grayling might as well say, "It's now a necessity that bed and breakfast owners must be allowed to turn gay men away, as homosexuality simply can't continue in the Cotswolds while we owe £50 trillion." There's another clue as to the nature of the Budget, which is the celebrations in the City of London. The Financial Times reported investors "greeted enthusiastically" the reduction in corporation tax, and a promise of a capital gains tax rate, "Lower than ever."

But as this was a Budget based on "Fairness" I'm sure the poorer sections of society felt the same. "Our housing benefit's being cut", they'll have chimed enthusiastically, "But we'll save a fortune on capital gains tax so we can have a day out in Southend after all."

So we've got a Labour Party that declared it wanted cuts that went "Further than those of Margaret Thatcher", and the other parties proudly making cuts much deeper than that. Which means somehow the Government would be less harsh to the poor and less grovelling to the rich if the whole lot resigned and we brought Thatcher back. You can't help wondering if somewhere or other we took a wrong turn.

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