Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cam'n'Clegg face the audience with a fantastical false choice

Back in the days when Paul Merton had his own Channel 4 show, he recounted the story of how a woman had reacted to someone advancing republican views. "You don't want the Queen? So what do you want, then? Hitler?"

"You can't really argue with stupidity like that," Merton mused.

For some reason those words popped into my head as I was watching the performance of Nick Clegg and David Cameron on the hastily-arranged Face the Audience show. They were both determined to present us with an utterly fantastical false choice - either you accept every last dot and comma of the Budget, or you do absolutely nothing, and don't tackle the deficit at all, with all the problems that would cause down the line. Anyone would think VAT was the only tax that could possibly have been raised, or that there is some kind of legal cap on how much bankers can be penalised for their wrongdoing, and on how far the wealthy more generally can be asked to pay their fair share.

Clegg said at one point that he was sure he spoke for David Cameron in reassuring us that if only it had been possible to claw in all the necessary funds by hitting the bankers alone, that's what the coalition would have done in a trice. Well, I'm absolutely certain he doesn't speak for Cameron in saying that, and frankly I'm dubious about whether he even speaks for himself.

It struck me watching the programme that, if this government is going to survive its full five year term, there is going to have to be some kind of relaxation (even if only an informal one) of the normal principle of collective responsibility. Cameron and Clegg were both essentially defending a Tory Budget tonight, so it's no surprise that Clegg looked the most ill-at-ease. Liberal Democrat supporters looking for reassurance that the coalition has been worthwhile will have wanted to hear their leader say "OK, this is not exactly what we wanted to happen, but coalition is a constant compromise and we've been able to offset some of the worst effects". Instead, they saw him dying in a ditch trying to defend the Tory policies he was berating just a few weeks ago.

One point on which I can commend the government, however, is their apparent determination to stand firm on the ring-fencing of the overseas aid budget. A member of the audience tonight trotted out the now familiar suggestion (previously advanced by the likes of Irwin Stelzer) that much of that budget is poorly-targeted. That's undoubtedly true, which is an argument for making sure that every pound of the very small proportion of national wealth set aside for international development is properly prioritised and helps those who actually need it most. It's not an argument for clawing the wasted money back to the exchequer. If there's one group of people more vulnerable than those clobbered in Britain by George Osborne this week, it's the poorest of the poor in Third World countries.

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