Cameron under fire from all sides as Coalition’s honeymoon ends

PM denies anyone would be made homeless by benefit cuts

Oliver Wright,Nigel Morris
Saturday 30 October 2010 00:00 BST

If David Cameron and Nick Clegg ever really enjoyed a honeymoon, this was the week when it ended.

On Downing Street's news grid, the half-term break had been pencilled in to begin with Mr Cameron talking up growth in the economy in a long-planned CBI speech.

On Wednesday aides were ready to brief that Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, had stumbled for the second week running at the Commons Dispatch Box.

Then the spinners planned to cap it with Mr Cameron getting tough in Brussels with spendthrift Eurocrats – a fillip to his party's right who are feeling increasingly unloved and uneasy in the new coalition world. Downing Street and the Foreign Office even prepared the ground by getting support from France and Germany.

But it all turned out to be very different. The Government endured sustained criticism of plans to cut housing benefits led by the London Mayor Boris Johnson, who likened the policy to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

It faced difficult questions over child benefit reforms and suggestions it was watering down the planned immigration cap. And Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, stole Mr Cameron's thunder at the CBI by mocking his Tory partners' lack of economic judgement.

As Mr Cameron travelled back from Brussels, the mood in the Coalition camp reflected the reality of running a two-party government in a country with no money. Government sources acknowledge the Coalition faces a "hard grind" following the upheaval of the power-sharing deal and the announcement of huge spending cuts. They are realising that in a coalition, attacks can come from all sides. This week saw not just a Labour onslaught and Liberal Democrat protests, but also an attack from Boris Johnson from the Tory left, criticism from Norman Tebbit from the right and whispers of "chaos" in the Treasury.

Labour's return to the political fray after months of introspection added to the pressure. Mr Miliband has made a confident start as Opposition leader, while Alan Johnson has confounded sceptics with a sure-footed debut as shadow Chancellor.

Mr Cameron's end-of-summit press conference in Brussels was dominated by the continuing fallout from the £18bn squeeze on benefits announced in the spending review. He urged critics of planned housing benefit curbs, who now include senior Liberal Democrats and Tory MPs in London as well as Mr Johnson, to "think again". He denied anyone would be made homeless by limiting "extravagant" housing benefits. As the Tory MP Ian Liddell-Grainger condemned plans to remove child benefit from top earners and Treasury sources were quoted as saying the policy could be ditched, Mr Cameron insisted he did not foresee any problem with compliance.

"I don't start from the proposition that we are all appalling cheats and liars and tax evaders and the rest of it, and I am quite sure this change will secure the very generous revenues the Office of Budget Responsibility has pencilled in," he said.

One of the most difficult episodes for Mr Cameron came on Thursday, when Boris Johnson used his regular appointment at BBC Radio London to launch a broadside against the housing benefit reform.

Mr Johnson insisted: "What we will not accept is any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London." The Mayor later claimed he had been misinterpreted.

Mr Cameron's strategists had perhaps misjudged that for some in his party, any kind of an EU deal in Brussels would be wrong in principle.

Lord Tebbit wrote on his blog that the Prime Minister would do better going down fighting "than to surrender in some Vichy-style arrangement".

Mr Cameron yesterday sought to portray support from other EU leaders for a 2.9 per cent increase in European spending as a triumph. Tory Eurosceptic critics will beg to differ.

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