Political cover: David Cameron, right, seen with Nick Clegg, has come to realise how useful his junior coalition partner is in protecting him from his own party's ranks - not least over issues such as Europe, tax and health.
This week Britain’s cabinet was confronted with a bleak political picture. In cold and precise terms, George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, told colleagues in Downing Street on Tuesday that UK growth prospects were deteriorating and did not look like they were coming back soon. The significance of his analysis is only slowly being grasped by Britain’s political classes: everything has changed.
“The reality we face is stark,” confirmed Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, in a speech on Wednesday that reflected the growing sense of foreboding around the coffin-shaped cabinet table. “There is now little margin for error,” he added. One minister confirmed that Britain was facing “a terrible situation”; another said it felt like 2008 when the financial crisis hit.
Much has changed during Britain’s long and dismal summer. Mr Osborne confirmed to ministerial colleagues that the eurozone crisis, shrinking export markets, the US slowdown, high inflation and rising commodity prices had all taken their toll, draining demand from an economy already sapped by the biggest fiscal consolidation of any major economy.
The riots that ravaged British cities last month may have been little more than mass copycat looting, but images of burning buildings and police struggling to regain control of the streets were reminiscent of the conflicts that scarred cities across the country during the brutal recession of the 1980s.
As Britain’s politicians prepare for the annual party conference season, the implications of economic slowdown – and the possibility of another recession – are slowly becoming clearer. The economy will dominate debate and shape strategy; a new phase in politics is opening up.
To understand the scale of the shift, consider the outlook at the start of the year. The Treasury was drawing up plans to start selling its stakes in banks, nationalised during the crisis, in 2012 in a sign of confidence returning to the City of London.
Government advisers talked confidently of next year’s Olympic Games in London as “a pivotal moment” – a shining light on the horizon – when austerity Britain would regain its verve. (Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee would further lift the spirits.) All parties expected to fight the 2015 general election against a backdrop of plenty that would have followed a few years of tough-but-necessary choices.
Now the bank sales have been shelved until after the election and few in the cabinet mention shining lights. Party strategists have suddenly stopped talking about “spending the proceeds of growth” in the second half of the parliament.
Of course, the picture could change dramatically again, but for now Mr Osborne’s grand political plan – two years of pain, three years of recovery – seems in doubt. Ministers admit that come the election, the economy may still be mired in low growth and few now expect the independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts to be achieved. As recently as March, the OBR forecast growth of 1.7 per cent this year, 2.5 per cent in 2012 and 2.9 per cent in the two years before the election. Current consensus forecasts see 1.3 per cent growth this year and 2 per cent next year.
The strains were showing in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition even before the economic outlook worsened; now the two sides will have to march together through what could be almost four years of economic hardship, punctuated by public sector strikes over the cuts.
Pressure is also mounting on David Cameron, prime minister, to do something to cheer the rightwing of his Conservative party, which has applauded the government’s tough economic message but feels badly let down on other issues, including Europe, tax, schools and immigration.
Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, an activists’ website, says Mr Cameron has been able to contain this unrest by pointing to the coalition’s success in sticking to its central mission: “sorting out the mess” in the public finances left by his Labour predecessor Gordon Brown. “That could change if the economy goes wrong and the coalition gets the blame,” Mr Montgomerie says.
Mr Cameron is drawing up a growth strategy built around delivering big infrastructure projects, cutting red tape and reforming planning laws. But he is under growing pressure from some in his party to emulate Margaret Thatcher and administer the type of radical economic shock therapy that she delivered as prime minister in the 1980s. Suggestions include cutting the 50p top rate of tax, scrapping European Union labour laws, reintroducing selective grammar schools and engaging in ambitious supply side reforms.
Tory MPs have been scrambling to put their advice to Mr Cameron down in writing before the conference season. David Davis, who ran against the prime minister for the party leadership, has co-edited a book – The Future of Conservatism – claiming that Tory ideals have been “significantly diluted” by what he once dubbed the “Brokeback coalition”.
Priti Patel, one of five new Tory MPs to contribute to After the Coalition, another book, says: “Being in coalition should not be an excuse for holding back on many critical issues such as sentencing, immigration and Europe. David Cameron is in charge and with a Conservative majority in cabinet there is no reason why the status quo should become the default option.”
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The grumpy mood on the Conservative benches is reinforced by a suspicion that Mr Cameron – who describes himself as a “liberal conservative” – is using the Liberal Democrats as cover for refusing to deliver a more rightwing agenda. Indeed one Tory official admitted the coalition had been “brilliant for us” because it allowed Mr Cameron to stick to the centre ground.
The prime minister is also blamed by some Tory MPs for a big review of parliamentary constituency boundaries – almost everyone is affected; some will lose their seats altogether – while others complain that the well-heeled Mr Cameron is remote and disconnected from the grassroots. “We’ve been taken over by a Bullingdon Club clique,” complained one senior Tory MP, referring to Mr Cameron’s past membership of a plummy-yet-boorish Oxford university drinking club. “It’s almost Edwardian.”
Mr Cameron’s team rejects this as an inaccurate caricature, pointing out that the prime minister has been dining with MPs and visiting the House of Commons tea room regularly – a classic manoeuvre to try to quell unrest in the ranks. But he knows that the ongoing economic gloom – manifested in rising unemployment and falling living standards – will only make party management harder.
Nevertheless, Mr Cameron appears unperturbed for now. That is in part because he believes he can win the 2015 election even if the economy is in the doldrums – provided he can blame external factors and claim that he had taken the tough action on the deficit to ensure things were not even worse. Clinging to the mantle of “economic competence” has become yet more essential to the prime minister.
Under Ed Miliband, the Labour opposition has so far failed to regain its reputation for economic credibility, which suffered under what Alistair Darling – the party’s last chancellor – has admitted was a period of “chaos and crisis” during the last years of Mr Brown’s government.
One coalition minister says: “All our feedback tells us that people don’t like what we are doing but they attach no credibility to the alternative. I think people have made up their mind about the Labour leadership.”
Mr Miliband must give a strong performance at his own party conference to reassure the doubters, fleshing out an alternative economic Plan B that does not simply remind voters that it was Labour which presided over the surge in borrowing in the first place.
Shaping Labour’s economic strategy is Ed Balls, a former Brown lieutenant, who has long argued that the coalition’s rapid deficit-reduction plan would hobble the economy. He talks of a “growth crisis” and told the BBC this week: “The evidence is clear that I was right and they were wrong.” But being right may not be enough.
Lord Mandelson, former Labour business secretary, says his party must recognise “the economy will not be growing quickly and real incomes will not be rising” at the next election. Writing in a new pamphlet called The Purple Book, he argues Labour must develop policies for tough times, including plans to modernise public services, to keep taxes low and to keep the economy competitive.
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For Mr Clegg the economic downturn presents a major political challenge as he prepares for his Lib Dem party conference in Birmingham next week. Members of his centrist party have been prepared to go along with the coalition’s tough fiscal plan on the understanding that things would be better by 2015. Now what?
The deputy prime minister is determined to stay the course; he believes there is a big political prize in securing a record of economic competence in government. But Lib Dem strategists admit they were betting on fighting the next election in good times and are having to rethink.
“The Tories can get away with an election in bad times, because they can say they are still trying to clear up the mess left by the socialists,” says one party strategist. “It’s harder for the Lib Dems, we are a party which thrives on optimism – that may be in short supply.”
To raise morale, Mr Clegg has sharpened his party’s identity in the coalition, fighting to water down “Tory” health reforms, opposing the removal of the 50p tax rate or the introduction of private profit into the schools system. Like Mr Osborne, he needs to show that the coalition has a strategy for growth to counter the downturn.
But Mr Clegg has always warned his party not to think of itself as an “internal opposition” in government. His allies say he needed to “turn up the dial” in differentiating himself and his party from the Tories following dismal local election results – and defeat in a referendum on electoral reform, a core Lib Dem issue – in May. But, they predict, he may turn the dial down again once the conference season is out of the way. “The next year is going to be very tough,” says one ally. “We’ll have to knuckle down and get on with the job.”
Europe: Sceptical genies brood in the bottle
In Brussels every crisis is an opportunity to further European integration. But at Westminster, particularly among most MPs in the Conservative party, the eurozone crisis offers a chance to move in the other direction. For them the current euro troubles are a rare opportunity to take Britain further from the centre of a European project they detest.
For David Cameron, prime minister, turmoil in the eurozone is thus not only an economic danger, but a political one too. Once the Tories were split on Europe; now almost the whole party is eurosceptic. (This week at least 100 MPs discussed a new “moderate” agenda to reclaim powers from Brussels.)
Mr Cameron’s problem is managing this visceral dislike of Europe. “I was told never to seek a meeting with David to discuss Europe,” says one Tory minister. “He thinks that even wanting to talk about Europe is swivel-eyed.”
The prime minister – who describes himself as “a very practical eurosceptic” – fears that when the Tory party talks about Europe, it starts to sound like a strange cult, out of touch with voters’ real concerns such as health and crime.
Tory MPs see the negotiation of a possible new European Union treaty to reinforce eurozone integration as their moment. They want Britain to use its veto to take back powers from Brussels on issues such as criminal justice, employment policy or immigration. Their hopes were raised last week when George Osborne, chancellor, said such a treaty was “on the cards” to pursue the “the remorseless logic” of monetary union: closer fiscal union. He knows that the tighter the core of the EU, the less likely Britain would ever be part of it.
Mr Cameron hopes that the crisis can be addressed without treaty change – a view shared by Herman Van Rompuy, EU president.
Tory demands for the repatriation of powers would strain coalition relations with the pro-European Liberal Democrats, who say Britain should be helping to solve the eurozone crisis.
So far Mr Cameron has managed to hold his party and the coalition on Europe. But many Tory colleagues believe he is hiding behind the Lib Dems as an excuse for not delivering the European policy they demand.