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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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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