Saturday, December 22, 2012

Budget debacle that left Coalition floundering

Here's my annual political review of the year, published in this morning's Newcastle Journal.

Until the early months of this year, the Con-Lib coalition that has governed Britain since May 2010 had by and large done so with a fair wind behind it from the public.

Without ever reaching the heights of popularity enjoyed by New Labour as its zenith, David Cameron’s government appeared, at the very least, to have earned the benefit of the doubt, particularly when it came to the economy.

All that changed on Wednesday 21 March – the day Chancellor George Osborne delivered his third Budget.

To say it was the pivotal moment of the political year would be something of an understatement. In terms of its impact on public opinion, it may well prove to be the pivotal moment of the entire five-year Parliament.

In the space of a 59-minute speech, the Chancellor announced a package of measures which seemed almost deliberately designed to alienate as many sections of the electorate as he could find.

He slapped VAT on hot food and caravans, froze the age-related tax allowance for pensioners, removed a tax break on charitable giving that would have hit hundreds of good causes, and topped it off with a cut in the higher rate of tax worth £42,295 to anyone earning £1m a year.

It was the ‘pasty tax’ rather than the top rate cut which proved the most politically toxic, playing as it did into the ‘Tory toffs’ narrative which had increasingly started to dog Messrs Cameron and Osborne.

In the end, the plan was ditched following a campaign by this newspaper among others – one of a series of budget U-turns which left the Chancellor’s credibility seriously damaged.

From there on in, even though the festivities around the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London 2012 Olympics provided useful temporary distractions, the government struggled to get back on the front foot.

And the slide in its opinion poll ratings was accompanied by increasing tensions within the Coalition itself – notably over Europe, welfare cuts, gay marriage and, most of all, Lords reform.

With his dream of a new electoral system shattered in the May 2011 referendum, deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was pinning his hopes of achieving lasting political reform on securing an elected second chamber - but the Tory backbenchers were having none of it.

The Lib Dems retaliated by scuppering the Tories’ plans for a review of Parliamentary boundaries that would probably have gained them 20-30 seats at the next election

Frustrated in his attempts to regain the political initiative, Mr Cameron resorted to the time-honoured tactic of a reshuffle, but some of his new appointments soon began to unravel.

He shunted Justine Greening out of the job of transport secretary on account of her opposition to a third runway at Heathrow only to see London Mayor and would-be leadership rival Boris Johnson rally to her cause.

His appointment of Andrew Mitchell as chief whip also swiftly backfired when he was involved in an altercation with police officers at the entrance to 10 Downing Street.

However in what has surely been the most interminable and convoluted political story of the year, Mr Mitchell now looks likely to have the last laugh, after it emerged that a police officer may have fabricated evidence.

In the North-East, the regional political agenda continued to be dominated by the fallout from the government’s spending cuts.

Newcastle city council responded to the spending squeeze by taking the axe to the arts budget – reminding those of us with long memories of the antics of so-called ‘loony left’ councils in the 1980s.

Yet at the same time, the year saw something of a rebirth of regional policy, driven by Lord Heseltine’s ‘No Stone Unturned’ report which was explicitly endorsed by Mr Osborne in his autumn statement.

The mini budget also saw the Chancellor forced to back down on plans to introduce regional pay rates following a fierce campaign by the unions.

The year ended with increasing speculation that the Coalition may not, after all, go the distance to the planned next election date of May 2015.

With the government seemingly stuck in a trough of unpopularity, the need for the Liberal Democrats to assert their separate identity from the Tories is growing.

Mr Clegg’s decision to make a separate Commons statement from the front bench on last month’s Leveson report into press regulation was unprecedented, but may well prove to be the start of a trend.

If 2012 was the year the Coalition lost the public’s goodwill, 2013 may prove to be the one that sees it splitting asunder.

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