UK Politics

Coalition cuts projects: The political significance

Houses of Parliament
Image caption The Lords defeat was on a bill about local government

The announcement of spending cuts might have much greater political than economic significance.

The Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, is shaving off a tiny fraction of total public expenditure.

Only a small number of the projects which were given the green light by the previous government since the start of the year are definitely being axed.

But with one fell swoop, the two political narratives - which will dominate the debate around the much bigger cuts to be announced in the Budget, and the very specific cuts to departmental expenditure to be announced in the autumn - have emerged.

Danny Alexander was keen to point to Labour's profligacy and irresponsibility in office, and sought to blame them for raising hopes of spending increases which the country simply couldn't afford.

In other words, these cuts should not really be described as coalition cuts, he would argue, but Labour cuts because the out-going government should never have promised the spending in the first place. This blame game will be a regular feature of politics in the next few weeks and months.

For Labour, the argument is twofold.

First, that the coalition government's commitment to protect frontline services and to promote employment is a fallacy.

They will describe cuts to hospital buildings programmes as 'frontline' cuts, even though there are no medical, and few NHS staffing, implications.

And they will say these cuts are not about eliminating waste but about cutting jobs - pointing to the end of the Future Jobs Fund aimed at the young unemployed, and the possible loss of opportunities for workers in the construction industry as building programmes are pared back.

Second, they will argue that all this is really the fault of the Lib Dems - the weak link, as Labour strategists see it, in the coalition.

The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne launched into the coalition's Alexander - accusing him of ditching pre-election Lib Demy policies in an "abject" way - to appeal to Lib Demy voters who felt "betrayed" by the party's decision to go into government with the Conservatives.

But the cuts are significant for another reason.

They are tangible.

Many heads around the country may have nodded when government ministers talked of the need to get the record peacetime deficit down faster than under Labour.

But now they are seeing the results of this. No longer are we talking about apparently abstract figures such as £155bn.

We are talking about libraries, schools, hospitals, and specific companies, such as Sheffield Forgemasters, that are struggling to expand as the country emerges from recession.

The coalition's strategists will soon be able to gauge whether people will accept cuts to valued projects in their communities because they accept painful cuts are necessary. Or whether the fires of local protest are about to be ignited.

Twelve projects were cancelled on Thursday and twelve more put on hold.

Whitehall sources suggest that some of the projects in the latter category will ultimately go ahead.

So when the larger cuts programme is announced in the autumn, expect to see some "reprieves" - which by then will be taken as good news to dilute the bad.

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