In the budget that will set the tone for the Conservatives in the run-up to the general election George Osborne needed to establish a narrative of success without removing the need for more of the same. The “steady-as-she-goes” approach will assist the Tories in conveying the message that any change of direction will likely put Britain’s recovery in doubt.
Put simply, the narrative is they have engineered an economic recovery predicated upon maintaining the current course. Thus planting the seeds for their election campaign. It is of course necessary remember that the nature of the recovery is very much in question, with some suggesting it is a southern-focused housing bubble which is rhetorically sufficient for the Conservatives to make electoral capital out of.
Indeed, for most, the recovery is spoken of very much in south-eastern accents, while the remainder of the country continues to suffer the consequences of retreating investment.
However, the Conservatives approach – although beneficial for them – may be problematic for their coalition partners. This is because the recovery is also very much a Conservative recovery. As they dominate key economic positions in the ministries they are able to claim the necessary credit for the recovery. The economic strategy coming out of Number 11 has been shamelessly Thatcherite with little or no input required from the Orange Book liberals.
Left with scraps
The Liberal Democrats are, therefore, reduced to claiming ownership of scraps left under the table as a means of demonstrating their success. For the Liberals, the budget may even risk pushing them out of the recovery narrative entirely. As we approach the general election the Conservatives will need to demonstrate to its uncertain Right how they have enacted Tory policies. This could, therefore prove a significant moment of divergence between the two in which the senior partner starts to take more of the credit for the Coalition’s economic (and broader) strategy.
Needless to say, had it gone the other way, then the Liberal Democrats could have been the cause of holding back what needs to be done. Unfortunately for Clegg there was never a scenario in which the Liberal Democrats would be able to claim they kept the Tories in check, even if they have done so, because the Conservatives are simply better at establishing narratives in the mind of the electorate.
As such the Liberals are faced with a difficult decision. As the Tories have successfully seized the economic record of the Coalition for themselves, Clegg risks being left with nothing to say. They have failed on constitutional reform, they have failed on social welfare. They have failed on tuition fees, they have failed on the economy. Only on gay marriage could they claim success, but Cameron has taken that for the Tories too. The Conservatives have succeeded on each of these areas and so are better positioned to exploit them over the coming year.
Clegg lacks a narrative
The issue seems to be a hesitation on the part of the Liberals to establish their own narrative in a way the Tories seem to be doing. This is partly compounded by a leader who the electorate seem to have taken a strong dislike to. Indeed, even if they broadly support a position Clegg is advocating, hostility to the man remains.
And given that the Coalition seems to be the only show in town for them, they are unable to explain why the electorate should vote for them given the party has decayed simply keeping Clegg as DPM. As Clegg suggested in a recent speech, he intends to be leader regardless of the outcome in 2015. This pretty much transforms the party into a vehicle for his leadership.
In the meantime, the Conservatives are looking to form a majority government after 2015, so this hesitation on the part of the Liberals therefore embeds them into the record of failure in the Coalition.
Consequently for the Liberal Democrats, the budget represents a final opportunity to demonstrate their successes in government. They have, for the moment, failed to do so. This is a Conservative recovery, based on neo-liberal principles, which the Tories will exploit in the run-up to the general election. On balance, the Conservatives are the clear winners out of the Coalition, whilst the Liberal Democrats have proven the greatest disappointment.