Steve Richards: Not so much progressive as painful

Cameron, Osborne and Clegg are good at tone. They know how to play the mood music of spending cuts

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Headlines erupt about the Government's "radical" solution to cuts in public spending. Meanwhile Nick Clegg speaks of "progressive" cuts, applying that other conveniently imprecise adjective. The two are interchangeable or can dance together. Details of cuts are vague but we know they will be radical and progressive.

When I read Clegg's interview in a Sunday newspaper, I was reminded of a conversation I had with David Cameron last summer during a long train journey. He pointed out that Bill Clinton, and other leaders in Sweden and Canada, had addressed the deficit quickly and gone on to win subsequent elections. Clegg cited the same international examples. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the two leaders reach the same conclusions based on precisely the same surveys from abroad, each of them plucked out of their own distinct contexts. Even so, I would not have been surprised if Clegg's observations followed conversations with Cameron in which the Prime Minister cited these examples for moving quickly and deeply.

In the context of the coalition, Cameron has not moved a millimetre in his approach to cuts, and has not had to do so. Whatever form their private discussions have taken, they speak as one. There was some speculation at the weekend that Clegg's focus on "progressive" cuts, and the need to avoid a 1980s-style approach, was at odds with Cameron. This is not the case. At the very top the coalition is politically watertight in the projection of this issue. Cameron has argued that cuts are progressive, including at his party conference last autumn. He has also explicitly sought distance from the 1980s. Tonally and in substance there is no difference between them.

Cameron, George Osborne and Clegg are good at tone. They know how to play the mood music of cuts. Yesterday Cameron declared that the situation is all so much worse than he had feared, which is saying something as it has all been much worse than he feared on a regular basis for a long time. Probably his noisy declaration will work for a time. The previous government will get the blame during the coalition's honeymoon, although polls suggest that support for the two governing parties has not soared since they came together with such ideological ease. Some Liberal Democrat MPs tell me that they spend most of their time responding to letters from supporters who insist that they will never vote for the party again.

Nonetheless, there is no question that those at the top of the coalition approach their task with genuine enthusiasm, or at least some of them do. The freer thinkers in Cameron's circle believe that the outcome of the election is incomparably better than if the Conservatives had won by a landslide. Their recognition of common ground with senior Lib Dems was an act of collaborative genius turned into practical politics. One of the new government's senior insiders is so excited about the partnership that he has to remind himself of the need for restraint in the face of more tribal resistance elsewhere, comparing the political rapport to getting a new girlfriend and not showing too much excitement for fear of alienating old friends.

Unity at the top is relatively easy at the beginning, establishing the tone, the process and the use of imprecise adjectives. Modern governments have no choice, I suppose, to communicate in these ways, to paint the big picture and receive praise for doing so. But the big picture is not merely easy, but something of a distortion in itself, allowing the artists to believe that they have the go-ahead for what follows. It is easily forgotten now but Tony Blair was praised ecstatically for his "principled boldness" in the build-up to the war in Iraq. The difficult phase for Blair was the aftermath, when what was said in advance was seen in an entirely different light.

I wonder how we will reflect on the wordss of recent days when the progressive, radical cuts have been implemented. Be in no doubt that the axe will fall swiftly and deeply. Ministerial words are not being deployed, so the cuts do not seem so bad in reality. They proclaim in order to clear the ground.

Yet even their preliminary proclamations are evasive. Cameron mentioned in his speech the huge amounts of interest being paid on the debt, but did not acknowledge that the alternative to borrowing would have been worse – a depression in which there was no growth, falling tax receipts, and even higher social security bills.

As the former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, pointed out in an interview yesterday, displaying more passion than he did when he was Chancellor, much of the debt arose because the government borrowed to save the economy from total collapse. The rest was the consequence of decisions about necessary public spending levels once supported by Cameron and Osborne. It will have to be repaid, but questions about timing, pace and depth of cuts have not gone away now that the last election is moving into the distant past.

Cameron is untroubled by such questions but he cannot avoid the hard grind of deciding what form the cuts will take. There are no easy, painless routes, as some ministers are discovering. On entering their departments quite a few want more money. There is considerable waste and duplication in the public sector, some of it shocking, but addressing the inefficiencies is not straightforward and often incurs short-term costs.

A freeze on recruitment is likely to damage services, as those who move on tend to be in the most demanding jobs and not in the easier ill- defined variety. Canada, Sweden and other countries cited as models for sweeping cuts started from a more secure base after high investment for decades compared with Britain. We have only started to reach their levels of investment, and, having got to the top of the hill, plan typically a quick march down. Painful cuts will almost certainly become more familiar than the elusively comforting progressive variety, and some will not be necessary, making the economy more precarious than it already is.

Cameron and Clegg are genuinely united in their approach to the coming cuts. Unity is not the issue at the top. Together they see a progressive future once the axe has fallen. The likely impact of their shared vision of a smaller state, vaguely defined and yet probably realised too speedily, is an increasingly urgent issue. It is possible to be united and wrong.

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