Lib Dem MPs speak out against Osborne’s extra £4bn benefit cuts

Chancellor faces backlash from backbenchers after criticising those who see welfare as a “lifestyle

Left-wing Liberal Democrat MPs have expressed outrage after the Chancellor, George Osborne, told the BBC that he planned an additional £4bn cuts to benefits. Coupled with the £11bn already announced, this amounts to a cut of 6 per cent of the total welfare budget.

In a remarkable attack on the current system of benefits -- and many of the people on them -- Osborne said:

The welfare system is broken. We have to accept that the welfare bill has got completely out of control and that there are five million people living on permanent out-of-work benefits. That is a tragedy for them and fiscally unsustainable for us as a country. We can't afford it any more.

Of course, people who are disabled, people who are vulnerable, people who need protection will get our protection, and more.

But people who think it's a lifestyle choice to just sit on out-of-work benefits -- that lifestyle choice is going to come to an end. The money won't be there.

It was a marked contrast to Nick Clegg's muted tone earlier in the day, when he said that tough decisions were necessary, but that these cuts were not "dramatically different" from those planned by Labour.

Three Lib Dem backbenchers have so far expressed their anger, taking issue as much with the aggressive tone of Osborne's remarks as with the further cuts.

Bob Russell, MP for Colchester, has tabled an urgent question on the extra cuts. He told the Today programme:

Yes, let's deal with the welfare cheats. But the notion that they are responsible for all the ills of the nation is in fact a smokescreen and it's not very ethical.

Two other Lib Dems, Mike Hancock and Tim Farron, also pledged to vote against the cuts. Hancock told the Guardian:

This goes right to the heart of the benefit system in this country. He has a lot of questions to answer and this is not the right way to do things.

Farron also spoke out, saying:

The government needs to demonstrate that those who got us into this mess are going to more than bear the brunt and that the most in need will not be targeted. We need to scrutinise where the cuts are made.

It's not just Lib Dems who will be disgruntled by Osborne's remarks, either. The Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, is engaged in sensitive negotiations with the Treasury over his proposals to spend more money initially to reform the welfare system and create more work incentives.

Osborne's grandstanding rhetoric -- which stopped just short of talking about "benefit cheats" -- helps no one.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

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