29 Sep 2014

Osborne benefits freeze: political genius or death wish?

The £3.2bn welfare budget cut that George Osborne announced today for 2016-18 breaks every rule of the pre-election positioning text-book, people are saying. It’s a death wish, he’s killed off the Tories’ hopes you hear.

They might be on to something. There are 10m households affected, amongst them hundreds of thousands of the working poor, people lionised by the Tories as folk who get up to work when the neighbours’ curtains stay closed. People the Tories said were the focus of the (Lib Dem-claimed) policy of raising the personal allowance.

Some of these households will lose a huge chunk of the gains they made from the raising of the personal allowance. What is George Osborne thinking of?

His team believes that the terms of trade have changed in British politics. No-one will believe a giveaway in the current economic climate. You’ll get credit for being a grown-up and serious if you come clean on some of the pain ahead. You’ll also put your opponents on the back foot as they struggle to convince voters how they’ll make ends meet.

George Osborne did something similar – numerically very similar – in 2009. He announced a freeze on public sector pay for those on more than £18,000 and saved £3.2bn. I made a point after the Tories’ non-victory in 2010 of asking all the senior players why they thought the party had failed to win.

I remember two of them telling me they thought it was because of George Osborne’s speech spelling out austerity. Others insisted the dip in support came in January as voters engaged with the real choice on offer and decided they weren’t as keen on the Tories as the earlier opinion polls suggested (a mirror image of what the Tories hope will happen to Labour this time round).

Anyway, senior Tories say they’ve road-tested today’s announcement to death. There is strong voter support; it has gone down “extremely well” in the focus groups.

Hard to imagine Labour won’t be pumping out literature pretty soon explaining to anyone who missed it what a Tory government would cost them in lost benefits. And as Ukip noises off rather drowned out the earlier announcements on apprenticeships and help for home-buyers the Tories lost some opportunity to showcase what they might argue is their more tender side in the last few days.

As for the ongoing distraction of defections, senior Tories are scratching their heads about who else might scramble over the wall to Ukip-land. If it is an MP that Nigel Farage has up his sleeve (rather than an MEP, council figure or donor) the whips and ministers have failed to sniff him/her out.

They’ve even tried some amateur cold war espionage techniques working out the profile of the individual who might have “turned.” They’re on the look-out for a loner with fewer friends in the parliamentary party than others, quite unhappy in their Westminster life, “an alienated type,” I was told.

If an individual under suspicion has  friendships within Westminster they think them less likely to jump. Mark Reckless and Douglas Carswell were in the unusual position of being their own friendship circle.  They also try to calculate if the individual under suspicion has particularly strident views close to Ukip and has a seat that could
be won in a by-election.

After mid December, the chances of someone defecting without calling a by-election arise as the date is deemed too close to the general election. Senior Tories think that might look disingenuous and unprincipled. But they still can’t
be sure. They’re not sure of anything right now.

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