Leaders claim mixed records as price of coalition compromise

BACK in March, with a general election date still to be confirmed, who would have foreseen the dreamy images of David Cameron and Nick Clegg strolling together in the Downing Street Rose Garden as newly-crowned Prime Minister and Deputy?

Or the apparently genuine fondness the two have repeatedly showed since as they discovered they actually quite like each other?

Back then, the two were rivals competing for every vote and, as commentators chewed over the post-election possibilities, were reluctant to reveal what they would do if the election resulted in a hung parliament as they fielded questions from Yorkshire Post readers in two separate sessions.

"Even if no party has an absolute majority if there is a party that clearly has a strong mandate from you I think that party has a moral right to govern, either on its own or by reaching out to other parties," said Mr Clegg. It was an answer that frustrated journalists – as was Mr Cameron's refusal to address the issue – but ultimately proved far-sighted as he agreed to take up coalition from the Tories when they won most votes and seats.

But, as both parties face charges of jettisoning manifesto commitments in the cause of coalition, how have the duo fared in honouring other pledges?

Mr Cameron was on safe ground with his popular promise not to join the euro, admitted university tuition fees were here to stay and promised to tackle the planning system – all achieved. So too was the pledge to restore the link between pensions and earnings which is on its way, and the raising of the retirement age to pay for it.

The Government's decision to scrap backdated business rates imposed on some firms has actually exceeded Mr Cameron's pledge at the time, while the Prime Minister has also seen through his promise to bring quangos down to size.

So far, so good. But what of the promise to re-examine the case for transport projects axed by Labour such as Leeds super-tram? Instead, even schemes that were approved by the previous government have been put on hold and others warned there is no chance of getting funding in the foreseeable future.

The decision to abolish all regional development agencies from next year – to be replaced by smaller local enterprise partnerships in areas including Leeds and Sheffield where councils and businesses have been able to agree to set them up – may also have surprised some, given Mr Cameron's pledge to readers that: "In Yorkshire, if local authorities want to keep Yorkshire Forward with its economic role then they should be allowed to do that."

And farmers will want evidence soon that Mr Cameron is living up to his warm words on food labelling, which he said was the "biggest thing" in terms of helping UK producers. Ministers are so far pursuing voluntary agreements with retailers to make sure British food is clearly labelled and identifiable, but farmers will want proof of solid results.

As for Mr Clegg, March must seem an awfully long time ago. Since then he has experienced the highs of "Cleggmania" as his popularity soared following the leadership debates and the lows of bearing the brunt of student anger over the abandonment of his party's commitment to oppose any increase in tuition fees and fury in his own Sheffield backyard at the scrapping of the 80m Forgemasters loan.

A quick assessment of his answers to our audience reveals the price of being the smaller partner in a two-party coalition. Ditched are the pledge to hold elections for primary care trusts – the Tory-led NHS reforms will see them scrapped altogether – the scepticism on nuclear power which the Lib Dems have been forced to accept as long as it does not swallow up public money, and the call to "encourage and foster good immigration" as the Tories have pushed ahead with their annual cap on people coming to this country.

But for those doubting Lib Dems uneasy about the coalition, Mr Clegg would be justified in recalling other pledges which he has been able to keep.

His promise of a pupil premium to "raise the money allocated to children who are on free school meals" will begin to appear before long, while the Government is also pushing ahead with a high-speed rail link which he hailed as "vital to the long-term fortunes of this region".

Promises to crack down on alcohol being sold below cost price and foreign lorry drivers to be charged for using British roads are also due to be introduced.

So, both can claim mixed records which they would put down to the price of coalition compromises. Time will tell if, before the next election, they face an audience again and whether after five years of coalition they will be given the benefit of the doubt over the broken promises or there is more scepticism about what they have to say.

Holiday homes move provides respite

ONE area in which both men can claim to have fulfilled a promise to readers is in tackling a 20m tax raid on holiday homes that had been announced by Labour.

David Cameron told readers Labour was "cutting off its nose to spite its face" over its plans to scrap tax breaks for thousands of second home owners amid fears it would threaten 4,500 tourism jobs and cost the economy 200m.

He explicitly pledged to overturn the plan, and although Nick Clegg was less categorical about it being overturned he branded the proposal "misjudged".

It "needs to be looked at again," he admitted.

Early in December, the Government delivered on their words by re-drawing the rules – which had to be amended to satisfy the European Union – so that most holiday home owners will continue to enjoy their tax breaks, which are an important incentive for people to rent out homes that in turn attract more visitors to the region.

Addressing readers, Mr Clegg said: "Clearly this needs to be looked at again.

"I think the Government has totally misjudged its impact.

"It is clearly not going to do what they said it would," he added.

A question that remains unanswered

WILL Nick Clegg come to rue his warning of Greek-style riots breaking out in South Yorkshire if unpopular cuts are pushed through?

Mr Clegg made the claim as he warned of anger if the Tories imposed deep cuts that could cost thousands of public sector jobs in an area where there are no Conservative MPs.

But with mounting union antagonism, the most painful spending cuts due to kick in soon and the student riots providing the first taste of a anti-cuts protests, the Deputy Prime Minister can not yet feel confident that the risk of revolt is over – not least because the Tory-Lib Dem coalition still only has one South Yorkshire MP, Mr Clegg himself. At a time when he was raising concerns about the speed with which the Tories were wanting to push through cuts, he said: "In South Yorkshire there is a higher percentage of public sector workers than anywhere in the country and there are no Conservative MPs or councillors as far as you can see.

"People like that are going to say 'who are these people who are going to take our jobs away, what mandate do they have? I didn't vote for them, no one round here voted for them.

"I think if we want to ... go down the direction of Greece where there is real social unrest that is the guaranteed way of doing it."