Leading article: Pain, yes. But no to unfair cuts

The nation is in crisis, filled with a sense of foreboding and starting to mourn, agonise and wring its hands. Not just for England's World Cup hopes, but for the Budget on Tuesday. Our ComRes opinion poll today suggests that the British people are braced for hard times. They know that sacrifices will have to be made and will accept them provided that the burden is shared fairly.

This newspaper agrees that taxes have to rise and public spending has to fall to balance the books, but our argument throughout the election campaign was that it could be counterproductive to cut too early. In this, we thought we were part of an anti-Conservative consensus against cuts in this financial year. One of the reasons why we urged anti-Tory tactical voting was because Labour and the Liberal Democrats seemed to agree that the cuts should be postponed for at least a year.

Indeed, we still believe that a relapse back into recession is possible if the stimulus is "too quickly withdrawn", as Barack Obama warns his fellow G8 leaders in a letter this weekend. Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrat leadership, on the other hand, seem to have changed their minds. Curiously, this change seems to have occurred at precisely the moment when it seemed that ministerial jobs were on offer with the Conservatives, but that the parliamentary arithmetic made an alternative arrangement with the Labour Party rather awkward.

There is some evidence that the change took place even earlier. Ed Miliband, one of Labour's negotiating team in the inter-party talks that followed the inconclusive election result, tells The Independent on Sunday today that "one of the biggest sticking points" was the Liberal Democrats' "macho" insistence on cutting the deficit, "saying it needs to be now and it needs to be faster". It was reported yesterday that Vince Cable, now the Secretary of State for Business, did not agree during the election campaign with the Liberal Democrat policy of postponing cuts.

We are unconvinced by Mr Clegg and Mr Cable's explanation for the change of policy, namely that the Greek fiscal crisis, which saw riots on the streets of Athens on the day that Britain went to the polls, changed the balance of risk of sovereign default. We do not believe that a question of timing could make a significant difference to international confidence in the British Government's creditworthiness. So, either the Liberal Democrat leadership fought an election on a policy in which they did not wholly believe, or they quickly compromised the moment the perks of office were dangled before them.

Not that Conservative policy has been much more resolute. It was less than two years ago that the party promised to match Labour spending plans. Admittedly, circumstances then changed, and the Tories said that they would start the cuts as soon as they were elected. But then they lost their nerve during the election campaign and decided to cancel part of Labour's planned rise in National Insurance contributions and to pretend that this would be paid for by efficiency savings. Is it any wonder that some people, including many Conservatives, think that David Cameron's basic ideology is simply that of shrinking the state?

Regardless of how we got here, however, there is no doubt that in Tuesday's Budget the retrenchment will begin in earnest. The warm-up act last week of Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, announcing cuts to programmes for which Labour had failed to identify funding, made that clear. Mr Alexander took to the task of cutting public spending with the same relish as David Laws but none of the intellectual stringency.

If it is going to happen it would be as well to do it well. This newspaper accepts that there are spending cuts that could be made, if considerations of Keynesian demand management were not a factor. But it is important that the burden of cuts should fall on those best able to bear it. It is notable that our opinion poll shows majority support for restricting child benefit for better-off families, and for income tax rises – that is, rises that take into account ability to pay, unlike rises in VAT.

When George Osborne sets out some of the tax rises that will be needed to help close the deficit in coming years, our stipulation is that they should be progressive and green. If the Liberal Democrats cannot secure at least those priorities on Tuesday, their members may begin to ask what the point is of the coalition. And their voters may begin to ask what the point is of the Liberal Democrats?