Conservative Diary

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First Cameron/Clegg joint TV interview: would you know which one was Prime Minister?

Cameron and Clegg - studious Nick Robinson and a BBC studio audience quizzed the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister about the budget earlier this evening.  Robinson's aim seemed to be to put them under pressure over the measures and fairness - public and private sector workers argued respectively that they're doing badly, and in most cases that the other's doing better.  You can read the transcript here.

Not one audience member had a good word to say about the budget - or the motives of either man.  It was doubtless selected with this in mind.  I'm far from convinced that in this way it was representative of the whole country, but it certainly presaged the sound and fury that'll be heard when spending's reined in and taxes rise further.  Cameron and Clegg gave the world no big new story, but the interview confirmed the following -

  • The Opposition and media ploy is to try to detach Clegg from his backbenchers.  The Deputy Prime Minister was constantly pressured to defend his Party's alliance with the Conservatives - especially on cuts (I use the word as a shorthand), VAT and bankers.  The aim of the assault isn't so much to divide Clegg and Cameron - though a public "split" would certainly provide Labour with an opportunity and the media with a story.  Rather, it's to work away at the pressure points between Clegg and his backbenchers until they break.  This has been Harriet Harman's gambit to date at Prime Minister's questions, and in her budget response yesterday.
  • The Prime Minister and his Deputy are clearly "all in this together" - a point their appearance was meant to prove.  Like others, I still haven't adjusted to the idea, and still more the reality, of the Coalition.  While Labour and the Liberal Democrats have in some cases a common past and informal ties, there's been, to date, an absence of Conservative/Liberal Democrat links that I've remarked on before.  This makes the relaxed relationship between the two men all the more striking, as both assailed Labour for the mess it made of the economy.  If they carry on in the same way, it will become increasingly hard for either of these two young, very similar professional politicians to break the Coalition - even if many in their own parties want them to.
  • If you didn't already know, it would take you time to work out which is the Prime Minister.  I think that a visitor from another country, who didn't know which man was from a more left-wing Party, or who was number two to whom, would have been short of clues, but would have worked it out in the end.  On policy, Clegg positioned himself as a critic of the bankers just a little bit more than Cameron.  At the start, the Deputy Prime Minister was taking the lion's share of the questions.  The Prime Minister had to butt in at one point with an "I can answer that".  And although he referred once to "Nick", the compliment wasn't returned.  But by the end of the interview Cameron was fielding most of the flak, looked the more dominant of the two, and Clegg didn't try to upstage him.

I thought they did a pretty good job of making the Government's case.  Needless to say, the interview showed up the weaker points of what, overall, was a desperately-needed budget - a return to reality after years of illusion.  For me, Cameron's defence of the lamentable winter fuel payment (why didn't the Coalition axe this Brown boondoogle for the rich?) wasn't convincing.

Paul Goodman


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