Cameron is complacent about the Tory right flank

Internal opposition is not restricted to "one or two backwoodsmen".

The key moment in Michael Gove's interview with Andrew Marr this morning came when he was challenged on the growing opposition from the right of the Tory party to the Cameron project. He replied:

When you carry out any kind of modernisation there are always one or two backwoodsmen who will grumble in the undergrowth.

In fact, the evidence suggests that a far greater number of MPs and activists remain highly sceptical of David Cameron's modernising agenda. There are two critical divisions: the first over policy and the second over party structure. The main tensions in the first category are over climate change and Europe.

On climate change, which ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie has predicted will prove as divisive for the party as Europe was in the 1990s, we have seen that reducing Britain's carbon footprint is the lowest priority for Tory candidates. As Montgomerie points out: "You have got 80 per cent or 90 per cent of the party just not signed up to this. No one minded at the beginning, but people are starting to realise it could be quite expensive, so opinion is hardening."

On Europe, although Cameron would most likely be the most Eurosceptic prime minister in history, many activists and backbenchers remain angered by his refusal to promise a referendum on any aspect of Britain's EU membership. Unless he manages to repatriate significant powers from Brussels (which is unlikely), we can expect this issue to flare up again.

Tory modernisers are fond of reminding us that significant sections of the Labour Party never accepted Tony Blair's policy agenda. Yet there is a big difference. Following the repeal of Clause Four, there was no serious constituency of support for wholesale nationalisation. But in the case of today's Tories, the right-wing dominance of the press means that Euroscepticism and and climate-change denialism have not been similarly discredited.

Meanwhile, the Joanne Cash affair demonstrates how hostile many local activists are towards what they see as Cameron's centralisation of the party. That the debacle took place in Westminster North (not usually Turnip Taliban territory) makes one wonder how much anger there is elsewhere in the country.

It is increasingly likely that Cameron will be forced either to swerve to the right or to lead a divided and resentful party. These are equally unpalatable options for a modernising leader.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Be a glitch in our benefits system, and the punishment is to starve

Faceless bureaucrats are tipping claimants into hunger. 

So it’s official. If anyone still doubted that benefit sanctions are linked to food bank usage, a study by the University of Oxford and the Trussell Trust has found “a strong, dynamic relationship exists” between the number of sanctions in local authorities, and the number of adults receiving emergency food parcels.

The research examined the impact of tougher sanctions imposed by the Coalition government in 2012. For every extra 10 sanctions per 100,000 claimants, there were five more adults needing food. By contrast, when sanctions declined by 10, there were roughly 2 fewer instances of adults needing food. 

The study questioned whether a system that creates food poverty is “a fair penalty” for those who intentionally or inadvertently break the rules surrounding benefits payments.

Indeed, benefits sanctions can often, on appeal, seem brutal. Take the man who missed his Jobcentre appointment because he was in hospital after being hit by a car, or the woman who received her letter a day after the proposed meeting was scheduled. 

But what the study doesn’t chart is the number of people plunged into food poverty simply because of a bureaucratic mistake. A 2014 report by MPs, Feeding Britain, noted benefit-related “problems” was the single biggest reason given for food bank referrals. 

It found that many of these problems were avoidable: 

“We heard that one such problem arose as a result of Jobcentre Plus staff having to rely on two different computer systems, each on different screens, in order to calculate and process a claim, if more than one benefit was involved. This was likely to delay the processing of a benefit claim.”

In other words, the system we pay for with our taxes is failing us when we need it.

Claimants often find themselves at the bottom of an unaccountable power structure. Gill McCormack, who is the manager at the Glasgow North West food bank, has a son with Down’s Syndrome and brain damage, and lost her husband at just 21.

As an unusually young widow, she repeatedly has had to show benefits officials her husband’s death certificate, and fight for her son’s Disability Living Allowance. At one point, her benefits were stopped, and she lived on bags of frozen peas.

She told a fringe event at the SNP conference: “The amount of times I have been back and forth with this system – the only way I can describe it is as a ping pong table.”

If administration errors can leave people this hungry – and when I was a journalist at The Mirror I heard from readers about dozens of similar cases – we are heading for a world where large gaps in support are institutionalised.

Universal Credit, the new benefits system being rolled out across the country, only kicks in after six weeks. Claimants can apply for an advance. But if this is not properly communicated, six weeks is long enough to starve. 

As the study acknowledges, modern food poverty does not just exist in food banks, which are a very specific type of lifeline. The Facebook group Feed Yourself For £1 a Day has nearly 70,000 members. Some are simply frugal mums or house proud retirees. But many of those who post are desperate.

One reason is illness. A single mum, recently wrote that the group was a “lifeline” when she was coping with breast cancer: “I have never been so poor.” Another wrote back that after being diagnosed with breast cancer, she lost her home and her job, and was forced to spend 10 days living in her car.

Others are simply women going back to work, who lose their benefits and have to wait for wages. A mother in five wrote in asking for cheap meal ideas as “I’ve got £50 a week to live off as starting work”. 

So what is the answer to this kind of hidden hunger? The government is still consulting on a “Help to Save” scheme, that will provide more incentives for low-paid workers to create a rainy day fund. Groups such as Feed Yourself for £1 a Day should be encouraged, because they are valued by their members and teach families how to eat healthily for less. But shifting responsibility to those on the breadline only works so far. After all, you cannot easily save if you are an unpaid carer. You cannot cook from scratch if your gas meter has run out. And you can't keep to a budget if food prices, as predicted, start to rise.

The latest research into food banks should reignite the debate about sanctions. But it should also raise wider questions about those who administrate and enforce our taxpayer-funded welfare state, and how, in the 21st century, faceless officials can tip unfortunate people into something close to famine. 

Not recently, many commentators found it hard to believe the plotline of Ken Loach’s latest film, in which a man is denied disability benefits because of a computer glitch. Perhaps they're not to blame - after all, since Jobcentres are removing the free phones that would allow claimants to kick up a fuss, many are effectively silenced. But so long as the food banks stay open, there is more listening to be done. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.