Coalition trials and tribulations over budget

The coalition have been having a few weeks of pretty bad media storms. There was the fuel crisis that never was when the government in trying to make people prepare for a possible crisis managed to create one. The government may have thought they were preparing themselves like a mini version of the Thatcher governments preparations for taking on the miners. In reality the government actually did the tanker drivers propaganda for them demonstrating how bad a strike might be: something which may well have increased the employers enthusiasm to make a deal. The government seemed to want to play up Ed Milliband’s links to Unite whereas in reality it is Francis Maude who seems accidentally to have been Unite’s secret weapon.

The other problems have centred around the budget. The most fundamental of these problems was the degree of prebriefing leaving many of the major announcements as yesterday’s news and thus leaving the press to pick over the minor issues which have been more problematic.

The cut in the higher rate of tax was the most important of the major controversial announcements. The government stated it was necessary to encourage wealth creators and that it had raised “next to nothing;” others have claimed the tax cut will cost the government a great deal and the reality is probably that we cannot really tell. However, the idea of reducing tax on the richest in society does not instantly chime with “We are all in it together”.

Further political banana skins were the “Granny tax” of scrapping the age related income tax allowance, the “Pasty Tax” followed by the embarrassing claims by Cameron that he had recently enjoyed Cornish pasties from non existent outlets.

Latest we have the controversy surrounding capping tax relief on charitable donations and the possibility of a climb down promoted especially by Nick Clegg. Ironically the cap on charitable donations whilst lambasted by the charities and some of the super wealthy has received more favourable comment on a number of talk shows, straw polls etc. The reality is that wealthy people are not being prevented from giving charitable donations, they are simply having a maximum placed on tax relief for so doing. That tax relief effectively currently means that all tax payers subsidise the largess of the super rich and laudable as these donations may be they are made to the charities of the wealthys’ choice. That means that there is less tax money available for the possibly less charismatic things general taxation pays for such as the NHS, defence, education and social security. The rest of us are not given a choice on what our tax pays for and this measure if better presented and more robustly supported could have been presented as popular (nay even populist) and progressive. That could have wrong footed Ed Milliband in his attacks on the subject. Instead he has been handed yet another recent victory.

Mick has alluded to the fact that this apparent lack of political control may be the way Cameron wants things. On Radio 4, however, it was suggested last week that part of the problem is that once a policy has been agreed by both the Tories and Lib Dems it is difficult to unstitch and there is a tendency not to refer it to those in the Conservative (or Liberal Democrat) party whose job it is to keep the closest eye on party and public opinion.

The idea of drift or lack of iron control may become a problem. This is the poshest cabinet for practically a century with a social makeup very like those of the Edwardian era. That is a potential handicap but the “We are all in it together” narrative may have been a fairly effective foil to that. In addition the British people are not as class conscious as they were. Hence despite Cameron being consistently seen as upper class, that may not be a disaster. What may be more problematic is the image of a group of rich toff amateurs running the country, potentially made worse by the relative youth of Cameron, Osbourne and many of the senior cabinet members. The most effective blow Brown ever landed on Cameron was “This is no time for a novice.”

The criticism of New Labour might have been that they were too interested in getting power and seemed to have been working towards it to the exclusion of practically everything else for most of their lives. With Cameron’s government there is a danger that they may become seen as very clever, very rich dilettantes lacking real deep understanding of governance who came to the position almost by accident or in parody just for a “bit of a wheeze”.

In a way that portrayal of a lack of overweening ambition may have been partly deliberate to set a contrast from New Labour control freakery. Now, however, it could be in danger of appearing to be a lack of the necessary application, gravitas and proper understanding to run the country. Thus far the government have been doing acceptably but no better and Labour have been only workman like in opposition. Perceptions can change quickly, however, and the charge of novice, amateur, dilettante could if it sticks become very damaging.

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