Time to take a step back and have a look at the government’s overall strategy.
Boldness is an important factor in strategy and in leadership. David Cameron and Nick Clegg both showed themselves capable of it in forming the coalition. Yes, it is possible to say that is the only way they could get their hands on power, but it was bold, it required both of them, and they did it. And as I said at a Labour fund-raiser in Telford last night, I don’t think the coalition will collapse any time soon.
Clegg would like it to hold it together for as long as possible because without the prop of government, the purpose of his party would appear to be very limited; added to which though he may be the junior partner, he is going to take a disproportionate pounding when the cuts and u-turns and broken promises translate into real impact on people’s lives.
Cameron would like the coalition to hang together for most of this Parliament too, with a possible fracture towards the end as the economy, hopefully, improves.
The economy is the key to all of this. It is virtually impossible to look at any page of any serious paper without the economic and public spending situation being part of the story. In today’s press cuts to quangoes, cuts to frontline policing, cuts to councils leading to a rise in payments for services, cuts to science and research, the row over cuts in child benefit and a rise in tuition fees rumbling on … on and on it goes, and today the media full of Hillary Clinton’s warning about UK defence cuts, which if they are implemented will not do much for the Special Relationship the Tories are supposed to have in their DNA, Churchill, Maggie, dadidah.
I am about to head to Liverpool for a conference of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy who say that even before the big public spending announcement next week, their frontline servives are being hit within the NHS. You hear it everywhere you go in the public sector, and in the private sector too, where their work depends in part on public sector contracts.
So cuts, cuts and more cuts, and that usually means political pain. But the Tory strategy is this – exaggerate the likelihood of the pain, and do something just short of what was expected; always blame Labour, no matter how facile and yet-to-be-accepted that argument may be; shrink the state (because that is what they believe in) and when, as is likely for all sorts of international factors, the economy picks up, take as much of the credit as possible and say it was all down to the cuts.
Nobody can deny it has a certain boldness to it, and if Cameron and Osborne manage to stand up to the political pressures that come with it, the boldness may pay off in four years’ time. But what it overlooks is the genuine damage to equality of opportunity and access to services that their approach will herald. And I am not sure that Nick Clegg’s fund for disadvantaged children will quite cover the cracks that the Cameron-Osborne cuts are opening.
Either way, the decisions being made in Whitehall now will reverberate for the rest of this Parliament and beyond.