Yesterday's tractor factory double act by the Prime Minister and his Deputy had a big media build up. Dubbed by some as a renewal of vows, this was to be the first in a series of carefully orchestrated joint appearances to prove that despite their mid term woes, Dave and Nick are still committed to each other and to the continuation of the Coalition. It was certainly a smooth performance; the chemistry between these two seemed remarkably unchanged since their rose garden debut. As befitted the solemnity of the occasion, the joking and back slapping has been replaced by earnest frowns and chin-stroking, but the body language is well synchronised. It's all an act, but it's a slick one, and the participants were clearly enjoying themselves. Which is more than you could say for their audience of tractor makers, who looked on with grave but polite expressions of boredom.
The men of Essex (alas, there were no women tractor makers to be seen) were right to be underwhelmed, for there was no substance in this two-hander and nothing that was new. Anyone hoping for a powerful restatement of the Coalition's objectives, or a set of breakthrough policies to get the economy moving, will have been sorely disappointed.
Billed by No 10 as an “economy speech” this short duet of prepared text, plus the Q and A session that followed, was remarkably light on content. Perhaps the most interesting moment was when the Deputy PM claimed that there is very little difference between the Coalition's deficit reduction programme and that promised by France's new socialist president, Francois Hollande. Mr Clegg seemed to think this would reassure his audience: all this austerity talk is exaggerated, was the message. By 2015, he added, the Coalition will still be spending a jaw-dropping £730 billion (42% of GDP) a year – more than at any time between 1995 and 2008. Curiously, however, elsewhere in his remarks Mr Clegg insisted that the government's moral duty was to “wipe the slate clean” of debt for the sake of future generations. So which is it to be? Continuing to increase public spending and racking up more public debt is a funny way to clean a slate. No wonder voters are baffled; a new IPSOS Mori poll reveals that 64% of people “don't know what the Liberal Democrats stand for” and 44% don't know what the Conservatives are about. The tractor factory visit will have done nothing to redress that problem; more likely, it will have sown further confusion.
Not for the first time, the Prime Minister in turn explained that the Coalition's central task – of restoring Britain's economic health – is proving harder than expected. But instead of concluding that the deteriorating state of the economy demands radical action, David Cameron recited the now-familiar litany: that the government is “getting the deficit under control”, that this has enabled the Bank of England to keep interest rates low, and that any let-up in this “tough” programme would notch up interest rates, precipitating a crisis for hard-pressed mortgage payers.
But this rhetoric doesn't match reality. It is not the so-called austerity programme that has been keeping interest rates low, but chiefly the Bank's willingness to buy up government debt in the form of QE. The British economy has been on life support since the banking crisis but there are dismayingly few signs that the government has worked out what will happen as QE is unwound – quite possibly at the same time that some real cuts in public spending have to take place. In this climate, lamenting the banks failure to lend to businesses – as both men proceeded to do yesterday – is futile. Confidence remains perilously low and, no matter how many times Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg insist that their objective is growth, the lack of any substantial reforms to trigger such growth in the short to medium term renders their insistence meaningless.
More worrying is the excuse now given by the Prime Minister for the failure of the Coalition's policies to deliver growth: apparently it's because “the damage done by the crisis was greater than anyone thought.” Well, no, actually, quite a lot of economists, commentators and indeed MPs, on this website and elsewhere, thought that the economic crisis was extremely serious and warned that growth would not magically resume in the absence of radical deregulation and tax cuts. It should be no surprise that, lacking such a programme and with the additional but equally predictable meltdown in euro-land, UK growth has stalled. If yesterday's relaunch was meant to show that the Coalition is learning from its mistakes, it was a sad failure.
The tractor factory double act did, however, demonstrate that Dave and Nick can still put on a good show of unity. If there were philosophical differences between the two men, it was hard to spot them. Both apparently share an inability to grasp the reasons for the UK's lack of growth, neither seem willing to apologise for underestimating the size of their task, nor could they come up with any radical new ideas.
If the Coalition collapses, it will not be through lack of agreement at the top table, but discontent in the ranks, fuelled by public dismay at the government's failure to deliver on its central objective: rescuing the British economy.