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.

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide