David Cameron must think Christmas has come early. We’re over 200 days into a government he leads and which is ideologically cutting public services and the welfare state. Yet on almost every unpopular announcement and unfair decision it is still Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats who are taking all the flak.
The Prime Minister plays the global statesman – travelling around the world and hosting foreign leaders in Downing Street – but rarely allows himself to be dragged into domestic policy controversies. George Osborne is rarely seen in public defending his reckless gamble with the economy.
But week after week it is Lib Dem Ministers like Danny Alexander and Vince Cable who find themselves in TV studios defending what are essentially Conservative policies in a predominantly Conservative government. The Lib Dems have willingly become David Cameron’s human shields, haemorrhaging support in the process.
And since they have gone against almost everything they stood for, it’s tempting for us to focus our fire on the Lib Dems. This week Ed Miliband and John Denham have quite rightly exposed their broken promises on tuition fees as they champion plans to triple tuition fees and cut teaching budgets by 80 per cent.
At the time of writing, some Lib Dem MPs and Ministers are set to vote in favour of the fees hike, others are considering resigning, some backbenchers will abstain and a handful will stand by their pre-election pledges and vote against. And if those weren’t enough options, there’s another group calling for the vote to be delayed to spare Lib Dem blushes.
For Tribune readers who have campaigned against them on the ground or seen what they’ve done when in power in local government, Lib Dems facing three ways at once will come as no surprise.
We are right to expose them on this issue. But let’s not forget that this is essentially a Tory government pursuing Tory policies and a small state ideology, with the willing assistance of the Liberal Democrats. For some of them this is comfortable territory. The ‘Orange Book’ MPs like David Laws have long wanted to take their party in this direction. For others like Simon Hughes and grassroots members, every day propping up this government is a struggle with their conscience.
That’s why in recent weeks there’s been a renewed effort by the Lib Dems to justify the choice they made to go into coalition with the Conservatives. Through books and newspaper articles, the Lib Dems have attempted to suggest that they had no choice at all. According to this version of history, in the post-election coalition talks Labour was not prepared to make concessions and our stubbornness and supposed rudeness meant an agreement with the Lib Dems was never possible.
The truth is we were willing to compromise, but it soon became clear the Lib Dems were not serious about a deal with Labour. We were astonished that the Lib Dems were proposing immediate cuts to public spending even though we had both opposed them in our manifestos and spent the election campaign warning they would be dangerous for the economy.
And while we were happy to agree a referendum on whether to change to the alternative vote system, as proposed in our manifesto, we could not agree to their demand to change the voting system without a referendum. Making such a major constitutional change without the agreement of the voters would have been wrong.
As the talks went on it became increasingly clear that the Lib Dems had already chosen to have a pact with the Tories – which is why Vince Cable and Simon Hughes were kept out of the room – but were using the talks with us to get more concessions out of the other side. And of course they had to invent a story that Labour wrecked the talks in order to justify to their own members why they’d thrown their lot in with the Tories.
No attempted rewriting of history will spare Lib Dem seats, but in most constituencies at the next general election it will be the Tories we have to beat. So while we’re right to take the political fight to the Lib Dems on tuition fees, on other areas we must be careful not to play into David Cameron’s strategy by letting him and the Tories hide behind their coalition partners.
The reason why Michael Gove’s troubles – on the school building fiasco, the Academies Bill and free schools and now under fire from Andy Burnham a wobble on axing school sport funding – have been so damaging for the government is because it is so clearly a Tory Minister in the frame.
That’s also why I believe the Tories will be very vulnerable in the coming months on law and order as they cut police funding by twenty per cent. It’s a Conservative Home Secretary, a Conservative Police Minister and in London a Conservative Mayor who are responsible for cutting police officers and undermining the fight against crime.
And above all, as Alan Johnson has said, the government’s spending cuts are too fast and too deep; they’re Tory cuts driven by Tory ideology.
So this should be our New Year’s resolution: let’s point out the Lib Dem broken promises, but never let David Cameron and the Tories off the hook.