Vince Cable valiantly continues to argue that the £1,000 increase in the income tax threshold is part of the Lib Dem “progressive” strand of this week’s Budget – evidence that George Osborne listened closely to the Lib Dems’ determination to protect the poor when framing his austerity package.

Before he pushes the case too far, Cable would do well to have a quiet word with his departmental (Tory) colleague David Willetts.

Politicians (and the media) have short memories. Increases in the income tax threshold used to be a favourite policy of the Conservative right: people would keep more of their own money and would be less dependent on state benefits, the argument ran. And, the poor would benefit. Read more

The departure of General McChrystal from the top military job in Afghanistan will undoubtedly strengthen the arguments of those in Whitehall who have concluded that Britain is fighting alongside the US in an unwinnable war.

It will also likely stir further doubts in David Cameron’s mind about the conflict. The prime minister is said to believe that British troops should not stay a moment longer than is necessary to avoid a open rupture with the US; that means that as soon as the Americans start coming out – and Mr Cameron hopes that will be in mid-2011 – so too will be the British. Read more

Back in 1997 Tony Blair famously told Frank Field to “think the unthinkable” in the effort to reduce poverty, rationalise welfare benefits and improve work incentives. When Field returned to Downing Street some time later clutching a plan to overhaul the system, he found his ideas rebuffed. The Treasury had deemed them to be, well, unthinkable. Gordon Brown had his own ideas.

So old Whitehall hands could be forgiven a sense of deja vu when Iain Duncan Smith unveiled the latest project to reform a system that grew still more expensive and complex during 13 years of Labour rule. No one could quarrel with Duncan Smith’s analysis – the present system is riddled with disincentives, unfairnesses and complexities, and the costs are still spiralling. A much simpler system, with fewer benefits and much lower withdrawal rates, would ultimately help more people back into work and reduce the overall bill. Read more

Formally, the shots have yet to be fired in the battle for Whitehall spending cuts, but the Treasury has already set the terms of its looming battle with the Ministry of Defence. A little-noticed but ominous sentence in the new coalition programme has put the armed forces on notice that the axe is about to cut even more deeply than they imagined into the defence budget.

Whitehall insiders are predicting a programme of retrenchment as significant as that marked by the withdrawal “East of Suez” announced by Harold Wilson’s government in 1968. Then, as now, the trigger was a crisis of international confidence in the nation’s finances. Read more

I have been puzzling about the sheer intensity of the efforts exerted by Downing Street to drag Nick Clegg from the arms of the Conservatives. The obvious answer is that no prime minister goes quietly and certainly  not someone like Gordon Brown, who spent a political lifetime in the quest for the keys of No 10.

But while it is easy to see why the Liberal Democrats have been playing along (leverage in their talks with David Cameron) surely the Labour leadership does not really think it could stay on in government with the support of the Lib Dems and a ragbag of smaller parties? The arithmetic doesn’t work. Nor does the politics for the Lib Dems: you don’t win plaudits from the voters for sustaining in power an unpopular government that has just been defeated at the polls. Read more

I am baffled. Even before the votes have been cast Nick Clegg seems intent on throwing away his best negotiating cards in the event that Britain wakes up on Friday to a hung Parliament. The Lib Dem leader does not seem to realise that the conditions he has been setting down before polling day would rob him of any leverage after the votes have been counted.

Mr Clegg’s pitch to the voters in this election has been: “Here’s your opportunity to break the system. Vote Lib Dem and you can smash the duopoly that has dominated British politics since the early 1920s.” It’s an appealing message to a disgruntled electorate, as the third party’s surge in the opinion polls testifies. If the weekend polls were to be replicated on May 6, Mr Clegg might indeed end up with a bigger share of the popular vote than the embattled Gordon Brown, and the overall result would be inconclusive. Read more

Amid expectations (among opponents) and fears (among supporters) that Gordon Brown is leading Labour to a calamitous defeat in next week’s general election, Lib Dems have been checking their electoral statistics and commentators dusting down George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England – a well-thumbed text when I studied history at Oxford too many decades ago to mention.

Dangerfield’s book, published during the 1930, provides the classic account of the pre-World War One upheavals that saw then then Liberal Party surrender its claim to be a party of government. Read more

They all flunked it. The television debates have energised this election campaign. There are encouraging signs that they have jolted the nation out of its long drift to insouciant indifference. Voter turnout may well rise on May 6. But illumination? Clarity? Honesty? There was no winner on that score in Birmingham.

The third and final of these encounters should have been the best. It was about the issue that matters most to the voters: the economy. What they saw were three, rather shifty, politicians running away from the truth. Read more

David Cameron was more assured than last week; Gordon Brown played to his strengths; Nick Clegg held the ground he had won in the first debate. One snap poll gave the contest to Mr Cameron; another to Mr Clegg. Both polls showed all the leaders bunched fairly closely together. I did not see any knock-out blows, and to my mind there are still three players in this extraordinary election. The one thing we have learned during the past few days is that nothing is predictable.

The debates are proving a wonderful innovation, albeit one that has come about half-a-century too late. Much was said before the opening of the campaign about the new media – social networks, Twitter and the rest – setting the parameters and pace of events. In fact everything has revolved around these face-to-face confrontations. You can’t get much more old media than that. Read more

Six days on from the first debate and the Conservatives have still to work out how to handle Nick Clegg’s meteoric rise. They had hoped the Lib Dem surge would prove to be a shooting star; as time passes they fret that, after all those false dawns, this time the Mr Clegg’s party might actually succeed in smashing the political mould.

A recent visitor to the inner sanctum of Tory campaign HQ tells me that “rabbits” and “headlights” were the two words that sprang to mind as he listened to the internal argument about how to react. Read more

Mischievous talk at Lib Dem HQ after Nick Clegg’s debate triumph. Word has it that Vince Cable, who has been on Mr Clegg’s right shoulder since the start of the campaign, is not quite as thrilled as some about the leader’s new found status as Britain’s Obama. One Lib Dem insider goes so far as to suggest the party’s would-be chancellor in any post-election coalition is a touch miffed about all the plaudits now being heaped on Mr Clegg. The media’s love affair with the sainted Vince has cooled as a consequence, and Mr Clegg may now decide he can go it alone on the campaign trail.

I am sure all this is just gossip, but there is a serious point. The power balance in the party has shifted decisively. No longer is the leader a callow youth relying on the wisdom and experience of a more popular colleague. Mr Clegg is now his own man. I suspect Mr Cable may not be alone in the Lib Dem team in having mixed feelings. But that’s politics.

A post-debate puzzle. I have still to hear a convincing explanation as to why David Cameron dropped any reference to the Big Society. After all, he had launched what he called the Tory big idea with great fanfare only two days earlier.

Will Mr Cameron revive the theme during the next debates or have the campaign focus groups already told the Tory leadership that it won’t gain traction? I ask the question as someone who thinks there is something to be said for encouraging civic engagement and social responsibility. Read more

Nick Clegg may have rebuffed Gordon Brown’s advances during the great debate, but the Labour leadership is not giving up on the possibility of a post-election pact to keep the party in government after May 6.

Andrew Adonis was first out after the debate with an effort to keep alive the flame of romance. Mr Clegg, Lord Adonis told BBC Radio 4, may be playing hard to get for purpose of the campaign, but on all the big issues the Lib Dems are much closer to Labour than to the Conservatives. Whether it’s tax, political reform or fairness, the two parties of the centre-left are on the side of the progressives. Read more

Strangely enough, on the night they were more or less as they are. There were no knock-out blows and no dreadful slip-ups.

Gordon Brown looked remarkably like, well, Gordon Brown – a bruising juggernaut of a politician who attracts respect and loathing according to taste. David Cameron displayed the fluency and charm that comes easily to Tory toffs. Nick Clegg stuck to the practised, occasionally sanctimonious script that the two big parties have had their chance. Read more

Gordon has Sarah; David has Samantha; and Nick has Vince.

The Liberal Democrats are having a good campaign. There is no reason to suppose that the publication of the party’s manifesto will change that.

The uncertainty about the election outcome has assured Mr Clegg of plenty of exposure. The televised leaders’ debates will treat him as a nearly equal alongside Gordon Brown and David Cameron. There is nothing that more excites the media than the possibility that the Lib Dems might hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. Read more

There’s something to be said for David Cameron’s Big Society; that’s not to say it adds up to a programme for government. It’s one thing to issue a clarion call to the nation’s little platoons. Another to believe that a welcome revival of civic engagement and personal responsibility is a plausible substitute for public provision. The tension running through the Conservative manifesto is the assumption that a proactive state and a flourishing society are necessarily inimical.

A closer look at Scandinavia, from where the Tories say they have drawn many of their best ideas, would have informed Mr Cameron otherwise. The style of the manifesto – an invitation to voters to join the Conservatives in building the Big Society – is a gimmick: clever or silly according to taste. I confess I blanched when I read Mr Cameron’s opening exhortation: “Yes, together we can do anything”. When George Osborne urged the nation to join him in building a new economy, I imagined the lines of the jobless snaking around the Treasury. Read more

If you are looking for the headline amid the avalanche of pledges and promises – some significant, many dubious – in Labour’s manifesto it is that the party has rediscovered its faith in social democracy. The thread running through Gordon Brown’s prospectus is that government makes the difference.

My doubts lie in the balance between supportive (“active” in Peter Mandelson’s favourite phrase) and suffocating government. Labour has it broadly right on the economy and mostly wrong on the shape of public services. Read more

The Treasury Mandarins, I am told, are weeping into their (Earl Grey) tea. Whatever happened to the age of austerity?

When David Cameron gave his party conference speech last autumn austerity was the big idea. The Conservatives, he said, were ready to do their historic duty and clean up the fiscal mess left by Labour. Big spending cuts were a certainty and nobody should think about tax cuts during a first Tory term. Read more

The Conservatives have been winning the argument about National Insurance Contributions (NICs) – but not because they have got the arithmetic right. The Tory numbers are as flaky as Labour claims.  David Cameron has thus far come out on top because: 1. Lots of business chiefs say he is right; 2. His is the simpler case to put across; and 3; The media is inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

As far as the numbers go there are two areas of controversy.

The first concerns whether an increase in NICs is more likely than other tax rises (an increase, say, in VAT) to cost people their jobs. I heard Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer pontificating on this on Radio 4. My instant reaction was that Sir Stuart would do better to stick to retailing. The real answer is we don’t know. Read more

Who reads election speeches? Certainly not voters and, mostly, not the journalists whose job you might imagine it is to report them. As an editor friend at the BBC tells me, news these days is all about “impact” rather than content; and, unless you are Barack Obama, speeches just do not do it.

But some speeches are worth a second glance. This – from Peter Mandelson – is one of them. Read more