Nick Clegg exposed a faultline within the coalition on Monday when he said the “huge, huge” sums needed to replace Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons system would make it harder for ministers to explain cuts in welfare and other areas.
The deputy prime minister made the remarks on his first day as the public face of the government while David Cameron is on holiday for a fortnight.
The £20bn cost of fully replacing the ageing submarine-based weapons system has already prompted a spat between Liam Fox, defence secretary, and George Osborne, chancellor, over which department should carry its cost.
Mr Clegg, who before the election favoured scrapping the scheme, implied that the money for replacing Trident could be better spent elsewhere.
“The world has changed so the technology we spend money on needs more thought,” he said in London when answering questions from the public via e-mail and text.
The comments suggest the difference of opinion between Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron on Trident – which prompted a sharp exchange during the televised leaders’ debates in April – has not been resolved.
Mr Clegg also appeared to undermine the coalition’s plans for a cap on immigration – another potential source of tension within the government – by saying there was no “magic number” for such a limit.
The deputy prime minister’s reference to the tough spending choices facing the government came ahead of a speech on Tuesday by George Osborne in which the chancellor will seek to justify what he terms the coalition’s “fair and progressive” fiscal plans.
Striking a cautiously optimistic note about the prospects for the economy, he will insist that the government is not taking a “gamble” with its draconian October spending review.
“The gamble would have been not to act, to put Britain’s reputation at risk and to leave the stability of the economy to the vagaries of the bond market, assuming investors around the world would continue to tolerate the largest budget deficit in the G20,” Mr Osborne will say.
Labour pencilled in £44bn of spending cuts without specifying where they would fall, according to the chancellor. “To say we must deal with the deficit, but refuse to say how, is simply taking the British people for fools,” he will argue.
Alistair Darling, former chancellor, will, meanwhile, insist that Labour must be honest about the need to cut the deficit to maintain its “credibility”.
In a speech at the Edinburgh festival on Tuesday, Mr Darling will say the opposition party is right to attack the government for “doing it too quickly and with too much enthusiasm”. The coalition is taking a gamble with growth and jobs that could put the recovery at risk, he will say.
However, he will urge Labour to face up to economic reality: “That means starting from where the country is, not where we’d like it to be ... let’s not pretend that somehow that we can just ignore it.” Mr Darling is backing David Miliband, former foreign secretary, in the contest for the next Labour leader.