Cameron announces another squeeze on welfare

PM says he will look again at abolishing housing benefit for the under-25s.

David Cameron's appearance on The Andrew Marr Show this morning was proof that his political woes have not dented his supreme confidence. The PM boasted that he was on his "fourth leader of the Labour Party" (only if one includes Harriet Harman) and revealed that he had told Boris Johnson: "once you've done your job as London Mayor, don't think your job in politics is over." Boris, one suspects, rather agrees.

Cameron offered a preview of the message that will dominate the Conservative conference: we are facing up to the deficit, which Labour has "nothing to say about". He boasted that the government had reduced the deficit by a quarter since entering office and had created a million new private sector jobs. The reality isn't so positive. The deficit has fallen but, owing to the recession, borrowing so far this year is 22% higher than in the same period last year and the government is expected to miss its deficit target for 2012 by as much as £30bn. Private sector employment has risen by a million but 196,000 of these jobs were reclassified from the public sector and, after falling in recent months, unemployment is expected to rise next year.

Elsewhere, after already announcing £18bn of welfare cuts, Cameron signalled that the government was coming back for more. He suggested that he would look again at abolishing housing benefit for the under-25s and at reducing working age welfare more generally (universal benefits for the elderly are, for now, safe). But he vowed that these measures would be combined with plans to raise more from the rich. George Osborne has ruled out the introduction of a "mansion tax" and higher council tax bands, but Cameron insisted he would find other ways of ensuring the rich pay their "fair share". "We will always be fair and be seen to be fair," he declared, a test that the decision to abolish the 50p tax rate clearly failed. If he is to secure Liberal Democrat agreement for further welfare cuts, he will need to offer something more than another "crackdown" on tax avoidance (making the rich pay taxes they're meant to be paying anyway, is not the same as raising taxes on the rich).

Economic recovery remains the precondition for Cameron's political recovery and, asked if he saw "green shoots", the PM replied that he was not "a forecaster". But even if the economy returns to growth this quarter, the problem for Cameron remains that most people will still be getting poorer. A freeze in council tax and a cap on train fare rises of 1% above inflation will do little to ease the pain.

David Cameron arrives in Birmingham with his wife Samantha Cameron for the Conservative conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.