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By Peter Hoskin
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The
recent Spending Review was meant to be a united front: a hypothetical overview
of how the Tories and Lib the Dems would together manage the public finances in
the year after the election. But since it was delivered it’s been
differentiation-a-go-go. Not only have we had George Osborne setting out a position on tax and
spending
that may not sit well with the Lib Dems, but today we also have
Vince Cable attacking
the Tories
in rather scornful terms. “We can avoid,” he’s set to assure a
Lib Dem audience in Manchester, “the sort of cuts that Conservative politicians
seem all too eager to anticipate.”

This
may not be surprising, particularly coming from Cable, but it’s still striking.
It suggests – as Harry Phibbs did on
ConHome
yesterday – just how politically significant Osborne’s little
pledge could be, in distancing the Tories from the other two main parties. And
it’s also representative of the new normal in Coalitionland. Increasingly, the
two partner parties are defining themselves by their differences rather than by
what unites them.


As
it stands, I’m sure Osborne will be relaxed about all this. He’s clearly
calculated that it’s better to be seen as a party of axes, not of taxes – and
Cable’s words will only add to that perception. But the Chancellor ought to be
wary as these next two years progress. As we know, the Lib Dems are eager to wear
and flaunt the mantle of compassion within Coalition, and claim that they act
as a restraint on those horrible Tories’ most horrible instincts. Expect them
to start telling the story that deficit reduction by spending cuts alone means
extra pain for women and the least well-off.

Part
of the Tory counter to this will have to be presentational: the party’s agenda
should, and can, be sold in compassionate terms. This might sound obvious, but
it happens all too infrequently. There was some accidental irony in Michael
Gove’s claim, in his recent Keith
Joseph Memorial Lecture
, that “the work of Conservatives in Government to
tackle deprivation is at the heart of David Cameron’s mission for our party” – because
Cameron so rarely makes this point himself. In fact, Gove’s lecture is almost
alone in describing how, in his words, “the cause of social justice is embedded
in every [Government] policy area”. It ought to be used a template for future
speeches by other Cabinet ministers.

And
then, of course, there will have to be new policy to support the rhetoric. Here,
I wonder, will the Chancellor be tempted to extend the personal allowance
further beyond the £10,000 level, a policy which has the distinction of being
both a tax cut and beneficial to the least well-off? The Lib Dems, it
seems
, will be going into the next election with a promise to raise it to
£12,500. If, as I’ve speculated
before
, the Tory manifesto matches or even exceeds that, then relations
will fray even further.

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