Will the Lib Dems reach for the eject button?

As Cameron and Clegg relaunch the coalition, the Lib Dems plan an early exit.

Two years on from their famous love-in at the Downing Street rose garden, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have chosen the appropriately sober setting of an Essex factory for their post-election "relaunch". All the talk is of the pair "renewing their vows" but that's not quite right. Cameron's betrayal of Clegg during the AV campaign meant that the marriage was dissolved long ago. It's not personal, it's just business, is the coalition's new mantra.

Despite Cameron's fear of his government being seen as a "bunch of accountants", the pair will insist that the coalition's raison d'être remains deficit reduction. As the PM will say:

Two years ago our two parties came together to form a strong Coalition. We agreed that our number one priority was to keep Britain safe from the financial storm and to rescue our economy from the mess left by the last Labour Government. That was and remains our guiding task.

But if deficit reduction is the coalition's "guiding task", it's worth pointing out that it hasn't been very good at it. The government borrowed £126bn in 2011-12, £10bn more than Osborne predicted in his "emergency" Budget, and the national debt is set to reach £1.4 trillion by 2014-15. Of course, it's hard to borrow less when the economy is shrinking. In this respect, the government's biggest mistake was to prioritise defict reduction above all else. As Keynes once remarked, "look after unemployment and the Budget will look after itself".

There will be some token references to growth in the speech, with Clegg promising a "renewed sense of urgency" and a "redoubling of our efforts" on getting more credit into the economy and building infrastructure. Yet the refusal of Osborne's "fiscally neutral" Budget to endorse stimulus meant that the real chance to boost growth was missed. Cameron and Clegg will insist that the damage done by the financial crisis was "greater than anyone thought" but to the voters, who have seen their living standards plummet at the fastest rate since the 1920s, this will just sound like another excuse.

Osborne's toxic Budget means that the pair can't even fall back on the old saw that "we're all in this together". Spying a political opportunity, Ed Miliband will also be in Essex today, calling for the reintroduction of the 50p tax rate and the repeal of the "granny tax".

The next election may still be three years away (although it doesn't feel like it, we're not even halfway through the coalition's term) but both parties already have their eyes on 2015. Two years ago, there was talk of a Tory-Lib Dem pact at the next election. Now, figures on both sides suggest that the coalition may not even make it that far. Today's Times (£) reports that the Lib Dems are considering withdrawing from the coalition "well before" May 2015 to allow the party to "reassert its independence". Given the scale of their losses last week (the Lib Dems now have fewer than 3,000 councillors, the lowest number since the party was formed in 1988), that's no surprise. As Matthew Oakeshott, Vince Cable's representative on earth, has warned, if the Lib Dems suffer more defeats like that one, they will not be able to fight the next election as a national party.

Senior Lib Dems say the party needs to leave the coalition "well before" May 2015. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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