Coalition's first 100 days: From a sunny Witney to bleak Sheffield

North-south divide apparent in attitude towards coalition's hard times economy

In the 100 days that David Cameron has been Britain's prime minister, the people of Witney in Oxfordshire have grown used to television crews and Japanese tourists. Residents are often stopped in the street and quizzed about their MP. Most have an approving anecdote in their back pocket.

Allyson O'Brien, a shopworker in Badgers Menswear, the clothes store beneath his constituency office, was ready and waiting. "He bought ties from here once, and he was very nice," she said. "And it was me who nearly poked his eye out with the pole that pulls the blinds down. But that was before he was prime minister." There is clearly enthusiasm for Cameron here but 56-year-old O'Brien added: "God help him with the country he has inherited ... He's got an uphill battle ‑ we're all going to have to struggle."

That sentiment - that Britain is on the brink of hard times - was echoed across the country over the last 48 hours, when the Guardian undertook a 168-mile journey from Witney to the Hallam constituency of the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, in Sheffield.

The route through coalition Britain was from the gentle Cotswolds up to the hills of the Peak District, but in terms of public mood, it was a journey that went downhill. A new dawn of spending cuts and tax rises has begun, and people in middle-England counties such as Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire are bracing themselves.

Few people seem to query the need for drastic spending cuts. But the further one travels away from Cameron's constituency, the more support for his government appears to be wavering.

In the summer of 1997, the upbeat mood of the nascent Labour government was summed up in Tony Blair's electoral slogan that "things can only get better". The opposite is true of the country under Cameron and Clegg, where the consensus, if there is one, is that things are almost certainly about to get worse.

On the trip the most optimistic voters were found in the first 20 miles of country lanes that meander out of Witney, past hamlets like Barnard Gate, Hampton Poyle and Weston-on-the-Green.

There are few public services to cut in these tiny villages; the only evidence of the new era of frugality are the speed cameras, abandoned by Oxfordshire council to save money.

The roads led to a field north of Oxford, where several hundred locals had gathered for the Bicester and Finmere show, an annual event to raise money for spinal injury charities.

Patrons came in wellies and tweed, despite the sunshine, for an event that boasted a foxhound parade, warm beer and the chance to place a £1 bet on the dubiously titled gambling game "ferret in a bin". There was a sense here that after 13 years of perceived neglect of rural England under Labour, the time for the countryside had finally arrived. And it was Cameron, who during the election campaign spoke fondly of fox and rabbit hunting during his childhood, who people said they instinctively trusted.

Repeal of hunting ban

"The Labour government abuses the countryside," said Nick Reynolds, 45, a local farmer. "The Conservatives look after it, in a nutshell." He was among a majority expressing concern that the Lib Dems would "water down" Tory policies in the coalition, not least the commitment for a free vote on the repeal of the hunting ban.

Roy Herring, 66, from the haulage yard across the road and the proud owner of a 1916 steam tractor, was Bicester's equivalent of a heretic. "I think maybe the Lib Dems will hold the Conservatives back a bit, which isn't a bad thing," he said. Expressing an opinion that was to be repeated at almost every stop between Oxfordshire and South Yorkshire, he added: "Vince Cable is the one that shines for me."

Britain is being governed by two parties that claim to have overcome their differences, but it is not hard to find division among its people.

One such battle was brewing later in the afternoon, 50 miles north, on the outskirts of the village of Meriden, near Coventry. As evening fell, locals gathered under a marquee in their continuing battle to turf out their new Gypsy neighbours who, five days before the general election, occupied a secluded piece of green-belt land they had purchased with trailers. The timing of the invasion, as locals call it, was no coincidence. Under Labour, Traveller communities tended to be favoured in planning disputes. That is now changing.

Eric Pickles, the communities and local government secretary, wants to revive elements of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act that turned trespass from a civil into a criminal offence.

His ministers have already reversed incentives for local authorities to make land available for Gypsy sites, and cut funding. All bids to fund new sites and refurbish existing ones across England and Wales have been cancelled.

All this is met with approval by Meriden's Residents Against Inappropriate Development (Raid), the group that oppose the Gypsy site.

They have elected a former Lib Dem councillor as chairman and – without a hint of irony – constructed their own makeshift camp along the lane leading up to the Gypsy site. A dozen fold-up chairs surround a gazebo with fairy lights, log fire and television, from where they take turns to maintain a 24-hour watch on the Gypsies. Doug Bacon, 44, a retired pest controller and the group's spokesman, said: "The community really has gelled together. This is not about hating Gypsies - it is purely about saying this development is not appropriate."

Across the hedge, Noah Burton, 45, a scrap metal trader and de facto leader of Meriden's Gypsy community, described himself as one of the coalition's "losers". He and the 10 other families who want to live on the land are seeking retrospective planning permission, but fear that Britain under the coalition government is becoming hostile toward people on the margins of society.

Cracks in support

But even Burton expresses a surprising sympathy for the challenge for the coalition. "I don't know where we're going to end up. But for the country in general, I think the government are doing the right thing with these cuts," he said. "It's going to be very hard, and people will need to stand on their own two feet, but in the long run we're going to be a lot stronger for it." Not everyone agrees. North along the A38 dual carriageway, green fields give way to terrace houses, and the first cracks in support for the government begin to show. Derby sits in the middle of Britain, and contains a three-way marginal constituency which Labour held during the election with just 500 votes, despite a swing to the Tories.

There are pockets that seem to share the government's vision of a self-starting society less reliant upon the state. In Normanton, a deprived borough, a group of Muslim parents have already raised £100,000 to set up a primary school under education secretary Michael Gove's free school initiative.

But most parents expect the state to provide for their children's educational needs, and Derby was one of the main casualties of the coalition's decision last month to scrap Building Schools for the Future, a £55bn school building programme. A total of £231m was pulled from 14 out of 18 school building projects in the city, many of which were due to begin as soon as Christmas.

"As a Conservative, it is a devastating blow," said Evonne Williams, the city council cabinet member for children and young people. "People have started pointing the finger and saying: 'it's your government, apologise'."

The M1 leads to the place with the most visceral anger towards Westminster. It is, ironically, the home of the chief architect of the first coalition government since the second world war.

In contrast to the Cameroons of Witney, it is a struggle to find anyone willing to publicly back Nick Clegg in his constituency of Sheffield Hallam, where one in three jobs are dependent on public funding.

It has not been a good three months for Clegg, his party, or it seems, his constituents.

An £80m government loan for Sheffield Forgemasters, promised by Labour in March to enable the company to manufacture components for nuclear power stations, was one of the earliest victims of spending cuts.

In addition, the shelving of a £13m grant to redevelop a former steelworks in the city along with a £600m project to regenerate the centre of Sheffield have left it like an abandoned victim of the coalition efficiency drive.

On a recent constituency visit to Ecclesall infant school fete, Clegg was berated by three constituents in front of shocked schoolchildren. One father came in a T-shirt emblazoned with the message: "Nick Clegg ‑ Sheffield will remember Forgemasters."

"He's not liked at the moment," said Chris Weldon, a 50-year-old former steelworker and Labour councillor. "A lot of it comes down to people having lived through the 1980s. We lost 100,000 jobs in this city in about four years, and anyone who lived through that will be worried now."

Two miles across the the city, around 30 young people had gathered at the town hall to protest against local authority cuts. Many had been brought up in local authority care, and demanded a meeting with officials over plans to slash the budget of Sheffield Futures, an agency that provides advice and support to young people.

The local authority argues it is only passing on cuts imposed by central government, which have reduced its payment of area-based grants directed at deprived communities.

"I've not had the best start in life," said Augusta Wilson, 24, her voice trembling.

"If they take this away it feels like they're setting me up to fail." She pledged to take the fight to central government, and "that Nick Clegg".

"He's not very popular around here, you know," she added. "Except with himself."


Paul Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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