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.

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.