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"After the Clegg jokes have died down, battle will recommence; OPINION real politik.

ONE thing at least united Gordon Brown and David Cameron this week - relief that the week's negative headlines, for once, were about Nick Clegg and not about either of them.

All three main parties are split on Europe, but MrClegg's Liberal Democrats managed to get their sandals in a twist over abstaining on a referendum, and so Labour-Tory woes went largely unnoticed.

Chuckling about MrClegg is probably the only thing that Gordon Brown and David Cameron will do together this year. The two don't see eye to eye on a personal level and, at a political level, the animosity is plain for all to see. Not since Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock have two Westminster rivals loathed each other so much.

This week's Budget will have some added spice for that reason, but it'll also confirm, I think, a subtle change of strategy from Mr Brown.

With an election no more than two years away and the public finances under pressure, Labour's room for manoeuvre is limited - but they'll need to use every inch to stress their differences with Mr Cameron.

Mr Brown has a problem here. His initial pitch to the country was that he was the man capable of taking the "big decisions" for the future of the country - unlike, it was implied, that upstart from Eton.

But that claim hasn't really borne scrutiny. Several such weighty choices were all made by Tony Blair before he left office - replacing Trident, more nuclear power, serious revamps of the pension and benefit system.

Blairite decisions that Mr Brown appeared to challenge on assuming office - super-casinos, 24-hour drinking - have actually yielded little change. The review of the Licensing Act concluded this week that only minor change was necessary. Manchester will not get a super-casino but the thrust of the policy, a freer hand for gambling corporations, remains in place.

Hence the different focus from Labour. Their attacks on the Tories now centre on what they see as irresponsible spending pledges without explanation of where the money is coming from(the sort of thing Tory governments used to throw at Labour oppositions). So many "dossiers" on this appeared last week you could be forgiven for thinking the election had already started.

Prong two is a continued focus on child poverty, a big theme of Wednesday's Budget, I'll warrant. And the third prong is likely to be security. We haven't heard much about this, but we will - who's better in a crisis, Gordon Brown or David Cameron?

The Labour and Tory high command can spend the weekend telling each other Nick Clegg jokes, if they feel like it. But next week battle is going to recommence in a big way.

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Tomos Livingstone
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Mar 8, 2008
Words:451
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