Politicians on all sides would have us believe the big issue in politics today is whether to cut public finding this year or next year.

Conservatives claim a plan to reduce the Treasury’s deficit is needed immediately in order to improve confidence in the British economy.

The alternative is that the UK finds it increasingly difficult to borrow money, pushing up the interest the country needs to pay, and that investors seek other countries to deposit their cash.

That’s the Tory view. Labour, by contrast, argue that cutting spending now would mean “slamming on the brakes”, because public spending is helping the economy to grow.

Both parties claim their policy would keep the economic recovery going, and insist their rivals will lead Britain to disaster.

But beneath the rhetoric, there is agreement on one thing – that massive spending cuts are needed.

Labour and Conservatives, as well as the Liberal Democrats, are talking about cutting departmental budgets and limiting public sector pay rises.

They also all appear to be willing to put up taxes, as part of a programme to reduce the deficit.

For the money markets, this has to be reassuring. It means Britain, despite being massively in debt, is likely to keep its borrowing under control, unlike one or two other countries.

But if there’s one thing that could throw a spanner in the works, it’s the prospect of a hung Parliament. Imposing unpopular cuts and tax increases is going to require strong leadership.

Whoever ends up in opposition after the next election will inevitably highlight the considerable downsides to the tough decisions that a government will be forced to make. Unions and perhaps the public in general may also be angry.

But sometimes that’s just the way it is in politics.

Governments have to take decisions which make them unpopular and, if they’re lucky, they may eventually be admired for their foresight and strength.

How can this happen in a hung Parliament, when Finance Bills – which bring Budget tax changes into law – can be defeated, and the Government is liable to be deposed by a motion of no confidence at any time?

Ministers will be forced to duck the big decisions and play it safe, taking care to avoid controversial announcements.

Unless, that is, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg rises to the challenge and proves he and his party have the maturity and courage to help lead Britain through a period of enormous challenges.

With his support, whether in a coalition or with less formal arrangements, governments will be able to make the unpopular decisions which the nation requires.

The question is whether the Lib Dems will be willing to abstain from the obvious advantages which come from opposing a government making cuts in public services.

This may be particularly challenging if there is no formal coalition, and Mr Clegg’s party instead find themselves in a position where they can make or break a minority administration.

Of course, there may be a clear result in the next election after all.

And if a hung Parliament does occur, the Lib Dems can’t be expected to throw their own judgement entirely out of the window and blindly support a rival party without any debate.

But the role they play and the approach they take could lead to an historic change in the way they are perceived – for better or worse.

And it could cement public opinion on the merits or otherwise of voting reform, which would tend to make hung Parliaments a common occurrence.