The Tories and the Lib Dems are now divorced – whatever they’re saying in public

5th December, 2012 3:47 pm

Today’s Autumn Statement will come to be seen as a disastrous piece of work, once the dust has settled. Not as big a disaster as the 2012 budget (this was only a “mini-budget” after all), but probably one that will be remembered. And not fondly.

The slieght of hand over the 4G spectrum may well trip up Osborne this week as his statement unavels. The scale of his raid on the poor to attempt to balance the budget could be an Achilles heel too, when considered alongside his tax cut for millionaires. But it’s the perpetual Gordonian game playing and switcheroos that Osborne is becoming fond of are merely serving to kick the can down the road. He’s desperately gaming the system in the hope that something, anything, turns up by way of growth to help him out of trouble. Yet each little wheeze makes the chances of a bigger crunch more likely.

But that’s not the most important political fallout from today’s Autumn Statement. The key role in today’s saga is reserved for the Lib Dems.

Now that might seem like an odd statement to make. After all the Lib Dems have never seemed more irrelevant in government than they are now. And yet by taking the decision today to deliver their own separate briefing on the budget, featuring the attack “The only tax cuts the Conservatives support are ones for the very rich”, they risk bringing the coalition to a halt as a functioning entity when combined with their less than full throated support for Osborne’s plans. Danny Alexander made no attempt to disguise the impact that today’s Statement had on the poor when he appeared on TV soon afterwards, and Nick Clegg went from animated during PMQs to glum once Osborne stood up. It was a far cry from “we’re all in this together” and “in the national interest”.

Following on from their decision to take a separate line from the Tories on Lords Reform/boundary changes, Clegg’s decision to make his own Leveson statement and their increasing anger with the Tories on Europe, the differentiation strategy has rapidly become a tale of decoupling, allbeit hamstrung by the fact that the Lib Dems are much passengers in the Tory government car as Mitt Romney’s dog was a passenger in his now infamous long distance rooftop trip across America. They’re not the co-pilots, they’re locked in the cockpit. The Lib Dems are no longer part of the government, except as a grim technicality. They are like a couple who have split, but who still share the same address for admin purposes.

Occasionally the couple are forced to appear in public but everyone knows it’s a sham.

The sad thing is that much of the Lib Dem parliamentary party still seems to pine for a non-existent past when they were a valued and valuable part of government. I’m afraid that time never existed, but a slightly less glorious but still worthwhile period – when they were very junior partners to the Tories – has all but ended.

The couple can’t bare to look at each other, or be in the same room together, nevermind make convincing joint statements.

They may still stay together until 2015, for the sake of the kids in the national interest. But the love is gone, and the inevitable post-hoc diaries of the various protagonists that covers this period will make very interesting reading indeed. I dare say it should make Blair/Brown look like a picnic.

And that – the end of this government as a functioning entity – is the real take home story from today’s Autumn Statement, and is likely to be what we remember of today when the dust has settled, whenever that might be.

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