Coalition unaccomplished? Photo: Getty
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Coalition rift: Danny Alexander accuses Tories of looking to "inflict unnecessary pain"

Conservative and Lib Dem ministers are exacerbating the coalition rift emerging from the Chancellor's Autumn Statement.

A fresh coalition rift emerged last week when George Osborne made his Autumn Statement. When he was outlining his economic plan of cuts to come, which made it clear the Tories' plan for austerity beyond fixing the deficit, the Lib Dems looked to distance themselves from such harsh financial decisions.

The Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg didn't attend the statement, the Business Secretary Vince Cable openly derided the Tories' plans as unattainable and "brutal". However, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, loyally did the media rounds and was willing to discuss the Treasury's new policies.

But now even Alexander, described by some insiders to have "gone native" in the Treasury, has attacked his coalition partner's economic plans as looking to "inflict unneccessary pain" on the country. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Alexander accuses the Conservatives of wanting austerity to last forever. He claims that the Conservatives wanting to further shrink the state is, "an ideological demand, not an economic necessity", and accuses the party of panicking ahead of the election:

Who would have thought that of the two parties that formed the Coalition, it would be the Tories who would be blown off course? A mix of unfunded tax promises, harsh spending plans, and pandering to Ukip may be born of pre-election panic, but it is not economically credible.

In turn, David Cameron has written in an email to Tory MPs that the Lib Dems are "all over the place" on cutting the deficit, and that the Autumn Statement plans are "distinctly" Conservative, rather than a truly joint coalition effort. 

This skirmish comes after Clegg told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show over the weekend that the Tories are "kidding themselves" about balancing the books:

I just think the Conservatives are kidding themselves and seeking to kid British voters if they are claiming that it is possible to balance the books, deliver unfunded tax cuts, shrink the state and support public services in the way that everybody wants.

As I wrote about Clegg and Cable's initial attitude to the Autumn Statement last week, this is foolish behaviour from the Lib Dems. Their "differentiation" technique of trying to distance themselves from Tory policies won't get them particularly far now, considering their consistently woeful polling just five months until the general election. What is more important is that they show themselves to be a vital coalition partner, in preparation for the highly likely prospect of future alliances. They hardly seem indispensable as a coalition partner if they decry the policies they were supposed to be a key part in formulating.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

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