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After the circus, we're left with a tricky balancing act

BEFORE the whole hellish farrago began, I expressed the view that the Olympics was a waste of time, money and muscle liniment, which had historically left little in the way of a legacy and which seemed chiefly devised for a lot of very self- important folk to swan about while riding roughshod over civil liberties.

As the Paralympics comes to a close, that remains my opinion, but it would be churlish not to concede that the Games went very much better than many of us expected and that, despite the fact that it has been the wettest summer for more than a century, people are already remembering it in a decidedly more glowing light. In due course, our memories will probably convince us that it was as warm as 1976, and that Andy Murray won the Wimbledon men's singles final as well as Olympic gold.

But over time, it will also become apparent whether the Olympics provided anything more than a distraction from our current dire circumstances. It is at least possible – and it would be nice to hope – that the Paralympics, in particular, have done something to change attitudes towards the disabled.

For the most part, however, I suspect that the Games will have changed very little. The difficulty with the distraction first identified by the poet Juvenal as panem et circenses is that you need to provide both, and nobody has ooh-ed and ah-ed at the five-ring circus in East London to the degree that they've forgotten the extortionate cost of a pan loaf.

People may be feeling quite good about Britain, but such optimism as they have doesn't extend very far from the cinder track or the pommel horse. If anyone in government had hoped that the "feelgood" effect of the Games would make anyone feel good about the Coalition, George Osborne's reception at the Paralympics quickly disabused them. (I think, actually, that it was bad form to boo the Chancellor at a non-political sporting event, but I'm whole-heartedly in favour of booing him at every other opportunity we get.)

The only politician to have done quite well out of the Games is Boris Johnson, to whom, in any case, none of the usual rules of politics apply. If anything, that makes matters even worse for David Cameron, especially if Zac Goldsmith should obligingly step aside to let the Mayor of London return to the Commons with an eye to getting rid of the Prime Minister. The reason that is not entirely outwith the bounds of possibility is that the Conservative Party is ruthless at ditching losers, and it has become more and more likely that Mr Cameron cannot win the next election.

Even with the boundary changes which their Liberal Democrat partners will (treacherously, maliciously, with a total lack of principle and entirely true to form) not now support, the Tories need to be some eight points ahead in the polls. They're 10 points behind. It's difficult to imagine what can be done to produce a shift of 20-odd points in the next couple of years.

It certainly wasn't the reshuffle, since real electoral benefit could probably only have been gained by replacing three people: Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne and Nick Clegg. Though some of us might wish it otherwise, this is not because the mainstream of the Parliamentary Conservative Party is correct when it imagines that a more right-wing and traditional Tory government would win outright. Nor is it just that the input of the LibDems has messed everything up – though things would certainly have been better had they not wasted loads of time on their pet obsessions, such as voting systems and Lords reform, about which most voters couldn't care less.

The Coalition actually offered the opportunity for a socially liberal but fiscally conservative administration of the sort which would have suited Mr Cameron's natural instincts, and for that matter, the Orange Book wing of the LibDems. And such a government, had it tackled the economy effectively and introduced sensible reforms in welfare, schools, health, transport and all the other nuts-and-bolts departments, might indeed have found itself a large body of electoral support; even, conceivably, enough for an outright Conservative majority.

But that opportunity was squandered. The Government's current predicament is entirely of its own making, because it has largely wasted its time in office so far. Even in those areas (such as Michael Gove's schools reform and Iain Duncan Smith's reconstruction of the welfare system) where it is doing the right thing, the effect of changes has hardly been felt yet, and won't be for some time.

Meanwhile, on the most important issue of all – getting the country out of the economic mess Gordon Brown landed us with – the Coalition is actually borrowing and spending more than the Labour Party had proposed to under Alistair Darling's plans. Those were the plans which, you'll remember, the Tories assured us would "bankrupt the country". Well, they would have done, and they are doing, except it's even worse than it would have been before.

It is a deplorable fact that governments tend to do unpopular things immediately after they are elected (when the governments, if not the policies, are still relatively popular), and then produce bribes for the electorate shortly before they have to go to the polls. But there's a good reason for it; no-one with any sense would "frontload" the nice bit and save the pain until just before election time rolls round, whereas if you start with the nasty medicine, you get it over with, and with a bit of luck, people may even discover that it did do them some good and thank you for it.

Only an idiot, or George Osborne, though I repeat myself, would fail to introduce cuts at once. You'd be loopy to announce unpopular policies which make relatively minor savings (selling off woodland, scrapping free school milk, or adding VAT to some hot foods, say) and near-certifiable then to backtrack on them at the slightest complaint. And to borrow money to do this is stark staring mad. The circus has moved on, and there's still a hell of a mess left behind.

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