Cameron and Clegg come out fighting as Europe turns against austerity

By Ian Dunt

David Cameron and Nick Clegg delivered a rare joint speech today, as they reaffirmed their commitment to deficit reduction amid an anti-austerity mood in Europe.

In a badly-received event in Essex, the pair tried to refocus their rhetoric on the economy, amid concerns that voters have been put off by the focus on issues such as House of Lords reform.

"I care much more about apprenticeships than I do abut House of Lords reform," Mr Clegg insisted during the event.

"I care more about children from disadvantaged backgrounds. It doesn't mean you can't do other things."

Mr Cameron balked at questions about whether austerity politics could ever create growth.

"What you call austerity, I call efficiency," he said.

"Here is the unvarnished truth. The damage done by the crisis was greater than anyone thought.

"I don't hide from the scale of that challenge - or from the message sent by voters in many places in last week's elections. I'm listening. I'm leading. I get it."

Thursday's local elections saw the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats hammered in the polls, as Labour gained control of councils across the country.

It was a trend repeated across Europe, as centre-right parties suffered humbling set backs.

Voters in France threw out centre-right president Nicolas Sarkozy and installed Socialist Francois Hollande, who wants to renegotiate the fiscal pact written up by Europe's right-wing governments.

In Greece, the far-left Syriza party has three days to form a coalition after voters overwhelmingly turned against the centrist parties which had signed the repayment treaties.

And in Italy, local election results showed a significant shift away from mainstream parties, with major boosts in support for Beppe Grillo's anti-EU party in Parma and Genoa.

The joint event came two years after the famous rose garden press conference, when the prime minister and deputy prime minister surprised political pundits by striking up what appeared to be an easy-going and genuinely warm personal relationship.

Since then, relations between the two coalition partners have noticeably cooled. Tory MPs wasted no time after the local election results calling for the government to jettison Liberal Democrat policies like House of Lords reform.

The reforms are still likely to feature in tomorrow's Queen's Speech, but only if they have consent in parliament, something few pundits would put money on.

Today's performance had little of the charm of the rose garden press conference, or even of Mr Cameron's usual Q&A sessions. Neither man looked comfortable in the factory setting and many audience members appeared visibly bored when the event was screened on live television.

The duo also faced questions on House of Lords reform – the very subject the event was intended to distract the public from.

Questions from the audience were broadly hostile, while journalists pointed out that the coalition's post-election relaunch appeared to be very similar to their message before the elections.

Liberal Democrat support has not recovered since the party backed increases in tuition fees, but Conservative support has fallen much more recently, mostly after Budget 2012.

George Osborne's document cut the top rate of income tax but raised VAT on pasties and introduced a 'granny tax', triggering a spate of bad headlines that lasted up to election day.

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