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Tuesday, May 08, 2012 

In the rose garden.

It wasn't meant to be this way. By this point, regardless of whether the Conservatives had won the election outright or not, the economy was meant to be growing at a sustainable level. The private sector, we were told, would step into the areas where the state was being cut back. Any lingering disquiet over the cuts was meant to have been overwhelmed by a "march of the makers", a return of that feel good mood, living standards rising again, and hope of all hopes, by 2015 tax cuts all round, just in time for the case for the second term to be made.

What we've had instead has been so wretched that the coalition has had to be effectively rebooted. Relaunched, in the parlance of the hacks inside the Westminster bubble. Gordon Brown's time as prime minister saw innumerable "relaunches" of Labour, all of which only contributed to the notion that his government was utterly doomed. Each successive time either he or his ministers made their case to the nation, begging that the apparent end of their relationship be reconsidered, more and more people decided it really was time to call off the affiar. Cameron might have looked strangely like a human sized condom filled with vomit, but he couldn't be any worse than Gordon Brown, a man who seemed to smile involuntarily. And anyone with doubts about Cameron could plump instead for Nick Clegg, who was neither of the above despite being exactly the same.

Cameron and Clegg have today then duly "gone on the offensive". This is a wonderful example of the brilliance of the English language: just as they have indeed supposedly bucked their ideas up and want to sell themselves all over again to the great British public, it also has a beautifully brutal double meaning, as nothing is currently more offensive than the sight of this gruesome twosome pretending that all is right between them. Their pairing is as insulting to our collective intelligence as it comes, as though we'll somehow decide that we should give them another chance purely because they're doing the act in the Downing Street rose garden all over again, albeit this time in front of the desperately unfortunate employees of a tractor factory. The message after all is exactly the same, regardless of what's happened over the past two years: no retreat from austerity now, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future (or efficiency, as Cameron hilariously tried to rebrand it), even though we're now in a double dip recession as a direct result of it. There isn't any revolt against this strategy, Cameron insisted; Francois Hollande supports deficit reduction too! That he also wants the Eurozone pact that effectively outlawed Keynesianism rewritten went unmentioned.

There are of course numerous messages to be taken from last week's local election results, and your own political prejudices will inform what you think voters were saying. If you're a Tory right-winger, you focus on the rise in support for UKIP and say this means you have to drop wishy-washy liberal crap and go to the hard right. If you're a Labour supporter or sympathiser you think it means that it was a protest against both austerity and the cuts. If you're a Liberal Democrat, then, err, it means you've got another 3 years of this hell yet to go. The problem for the coalition is that it's getting it from all sides, to a far more problematic extent than a single party government would be. It also leaves it with almost no room for manoeuvre: the cuts and austerity were made such a fetish from the outset that both Cameron and Clegg imagine to backtrack now would result in them losing all credibility. In fact, more likely is that they'd gain some respect for admitting they got it wrong; what people really loathe is incompetence, as has been demonstrated over the last six weeks. More prosaically, it means that the Tories can't tack to the right if they wanted to because of the Lib Dems, while the Lib Dems have failed to gain any credit for what they've achieved because it's all so massively overwhelmed by the damage of the worst Tory policies.

Furthermore, thanks to the Tory strategists reading Tony Blair's autobiography far too literally, putting into practice his advice that he wished he'd began his reforms immediately rather than half-way through his second, the coalition has already put on the statute book their changes to the NHS, education and welfare. The policy cupboard has as a result been left almost bare; have a look at the bills mooted as being in tomorrow's second Queen's speech, and see how reminiscent of the last years of Brown's government they are. Yes, there's the banking reform and public sector pensions bills, both of which are important for diametrically opposite reasons, but the rest is pitiful. Lords reform which no one really wants, a national crime agency, to which the only response has to be, what, again, and that's about it. As true as it is that New Labour legislated far too much, legislation is what is needed when everything else is so dismal. It distracts attention, it invites debate, and it gives MPs something to do. Without it, all of the talk is going to be about the still tanking economy and the 80% of the cuts which are still to be made.

This also means there's plenty of time for those reforms to go horribly wrong. If NHS waiting times go up then there's only thing they'll be blamed on, and it seems a more than reasonable prediction that Iain Duncan Smith's universal credit, a good idea on paper, becomes a logistical nightmare akin to the early years of tax credits when implemented.

It could still all change. The economy can't slump forever, surely, and the current omnishambles will eventually pass; no government can go on being both unlucky and seemingly incompetent forever without something breaking. The odds are good though that this won't be the last relaunch between now and 2015.

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