When George Osborne announced the first public spending cuts today, he did at least have a mandate of sorts. While some of the detail may differ from the ‘efficiency savings’ claimed during the election to be able to deliver six billion pounds, he had been pretty clear about direction of travel, and though he did not get a Parliamentary majority, he is Chancellor and democratically entitled, with the support of his coalition partners, to push through the cuts.
It is the coalition partners who have trickier questions to answer. Everyone accepts that the reality of coalition government means compromise, some desired plans left on the shelf, some undesired plans having to be implemented.
But it really is not that long ago that Nick Clegg was defining new politics as politicians saying what they would do, then doing it. Around the same time that he was saying – and thereby largely chiming with Labour – that the recovery was too fragile for the axe yet to be wielded as the Tories would like.
So those who voted Tory are getting pretty much what the Tories promised. Those who voted Lib Dem as a way of stopping the Tories doing what they planned can feel a tad let down.
And whilst Nick Clegg is clearly loving being deputy PM, I think the Tories saw him coming when it came to Cabinet formulation. He could – and probably should – have insisted on one of the big departments, the Treasury, Foreign Office or Home Office, in addition to being DPM.
The Tories have all three of these, and they have (well protected) health and education. The latter despite the fact that Schools Secretary Michael Gove, when the negotiations were going on, said he would happily give up his position for a Lib Dem.
The former Lib Dem schools supremo David Laws says he actively wanted the chief secretary’s job. Mmmm. And I bet David and George wanted him there too. Among the most Tory-leaning of the leading Lib Dems, his presence, and seeming relish for the task, locks him and his party into the political fallout. ‘I’ll let David answer in more detail’ could soon replace ‘I agree with Nick’ as the best Lib Dem T-shirt slogan.
The remaining Lib Dems in the Cabinet are Vince Cable at the Business Department, ready to take a lion’s share of cuts, Chris Huhne at energy where surely he will have to face up to the need for nuclear power to meet energy and climate change needs – a potential problem for his party – and finally Danny Alexander in the virtually Tory-free zone of Scotland.
I surprised some of my Labour colleagues during the campaign when I said I didn’t quite buy into the ‘Osborne the weak link’ line of attack. It was as much worries about Cameron as Osborne that stopped them getting a majority and having to dive in with the Liberal Democrats.
But as he set out his plans today, Osborne had the Lib Dems pretty much where he wants them. It was the still campaigning Tory, rather than the now governing Chancellor, who let a big smile cross his face as he asked David to say how happy Vince was with the way things turned out.
He would have preferred a big majority. But this is a pretty good second best, to do what he wanted, with some of his erstwhile greatest critics cheering him on.
*Buy The Blair Years online and raise cash for Labour http://www.alastaircampbell.org/bookshop.php.