Leader: The Humpty-Dumpty politics of the coalition government

In its own self-image, this coalition government is "progressive" and its leading protagonists are apos-tles of "fairness". The "emergency" Budget was neither a statement of ideological intent nor the first major offensive in what will come to be seen as a war against the enabling state: it was an exercise in pragmatism, a reasonable response to Labour's profligacy and a Budget deficit that required the last government to borrow one pound for every four that it spent.

We have been consistent in our opposition to the coalition's doctrinaire deficit-reduction programme. Because we were fearful that a rapid reversal of fiscal and monetary stimulus would halt recovery and even tip the economy back into recession, our preference was not for immediate and draconian cuts; it was for the government to have remained in wait-and-see mode, to have been much more flexible. "O Lord," wrote St Augustine in his Confessions, "give me chastity and continence - but not yet." Quite so.

Now, as our columnist David Blanchflower shows in his analysis of the latest economic data on page 17, the recovery is beginning to stall, house prices are falling again and people are reluctant to spend because of their fear of rising unemployment and of how the coming cuts will affect them. This is troubling. Yet the Chancellor, George Osborne, still has no plan B, nor any real strategy for growth.

This government has also been alarmingly careless in how it goes about its business. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has been forced into making numerous apologies following his various error-strewn policy announcements. His inattention to detail - a consequence of his overconfidence and inexperience - is shared by David Cameron.

This carelessness is beginning to damage the government and disturb the electorate, especially the poor and struggling who have most to lose from the coalition's anti-state policies. First Mr Cameron announced, casually, during a meet-the-public session in Birmingham, that no one should have the right to occupy a council house for life. (The government was forced into issuing a hasty clarification.) Then, on 8 August, the health minister Anne Milton announced that the right of nursery school children to have free milk would be withdrawn. That decision was quickly reversed, leaving the hapless universities minister, David Willetts, exposed during a live television interview: he began it by defending the milk-snatching, only to end it by trying to justify another panicked U-turn. It is good, then, that he is known as "Two Brains": having one brain is not enough when you are forced to defend two contradictory policies simultaneously. When Mr Willetts uses a word, to paraphrase Humpty-Dumpty, it means just what he chooses it to mean - neither more nor less.

All of this suggests a lack of preparedness rather than mean-spiritedness. No one, for instance, who has observed the evolution in the thinking of Iain Duncan Smith - from right-wing headbanger into the nuanced and compassionate politician he is today - could seriously say that he is motivated by malice or contempt for mass man. Yes, he is determined to reform our complex and unwieldy welfare system and is saddened by the diminished lives of those who are dependent on welfare. Yes, he wants to incentivise the right to work for those living on long-term unemployment benefits. But will he have the freedom and the resources truly to effect a generational transformation in our welfare system? Or will he be thwarted by the dogmatism of Mr Osborne and his Liberal Democrat assassin-in-chief, the implausible Danny Alexander?

This government will be judged not on what it says, but on what it does - on the cold, clear detail of its legislative programme. For now, however, ahead of this autumn's Comprehensive Spending Review that will determine the severity and depth of the cuts in public spending, it is worth listening carefully to the language of this government.

We do not wish to hear the cruel tone of the Margaret Thatcher and John Major years. So far, the tone is not shrill and it is not braying. But it could easily become so as the cuts deepen and public unrest grows.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science