The coalition agreement: defence and deficit reduction

Welcome to the sixth in a series of posts going through the full coalition agreement section by section. You can read the full coalition document here.

Despite the importance of defence and the deficit, these are two of the shortest sections in the coalition agreement, reflecting how there are a small number of dominating issues.

For defence there is the Trident compromise – it will be replaced unless there is a better value for money alternative. What the wording leaves unclear is the extent to which any alternative has to meet Trident like-for-like in terms of destructive power and constant instant availability. Whether or not both of those are required in effect decides the issue of whether or not a cheaper alternative is available.

Most of the rest of the defence section is about improving conditions and equipments for the troops. It’s one of Ming Campbell’s legacies, both in his campaigning and his influence on party policy, that the Military Covenant features so strongly here.

Finally, there is a touch of ethical foreign policy at the end of the defence section with the pledge that “we will support defence jobs through exports that are used for legitimate purposes, not internal repression, and will work for a full international ban on cluster munitions”.

Turning to the deficit, there is a lot of talk about the importance of tackling the deficit as fast as possible and in as fair a manner as practical. The few details in the section are by now familiar from the news over recent days – the £6 billion initial round of cuts, the changes to Labour’s national insurance plans, the creation of an Office for Budget Responsibility, a cull of quangos, cuts to the Child Trust Fund and to tax credits for higher earners and a full spending review for the autumn.

Quite how that will play out the agreement doesn’t give much clue. David Laws’s appointment as Chief Secretary means that it will have a strong Liberal Democrat input – and so significantly different from what a minority Conservative government would have produced on its own.

The politics of this for Labour will be interesting. Will it be credible for all their leadership candidates to simply oppose any or all possible cuts, or will any look to stand out from the field by offering up a credible alternative economic policy that isn’t simply “don’t cut that yet!” repeated over and over on every point?

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