Osborne buries universal child benefit

The Tories' political gamble sets out a clear dividing line with Labour.

After last year's "age of austerity" message sent their poll ratings tumbling, the Tories were hoping to strike a more optimistic tone at this year's conference. But George Osborne's decision to bury the principle of universal child benefit means that all the talk is of cuts once more.

He announced this morning that child benefit would be axed for higher rate taxpayers from 2013, with no suggestion that it would be reinstated in the future - "I'm not planning to reverse this".

This means that all households in which at least one person earns £44,000 or more will lose out, although a family with two adults earning, say, £40,000 a year will not.

It's a big political gamble for the Tories and it amounts to an average tax increase of nearly £2,000 a year (£1,000 for the first child and £700 for each subsequent child) for the families affected.

As Sunder Katwala notes, the decision also jars with what many key Tories said during the election campaign. Here, for instance, is what Philip Hammond, then shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, told Newsnight on 27 April:

We have made a decision to rule out means testing child benefit because it is a universal benefit. Talking to people, one of the things they appreciate about child benefit that it is universal and easily understood. To start to means test it would erode it ... It reassures them about the availability of the benefit. If you start means testing it, if you start slicing away at that universality, then people are going to ask where you are going to stop.

Osborne's team respond by claiming that they haven't "means tested" child benefit, they've merely linked it to tax status. But to most voters that will look like a distinction without a difference.

The Tories' move also sets out a clear, and potentially defining, dividing line with Labour. Ed Miliband has been clearer than most in his defence of a universal welfare state, a position that is part politics - the need to retain middle-class support for state provision - and part principle - the state has an obligation to support families, regardless of their income.

As he told Andrew Marr recently:

I personally don't think we should reopen the issue of universal benefits ... I think that actually why do we give child benefit to families up and down this country? Because it's a recognition of the importance of family and the cost of children.

One should add, as all progessives know, that benefits for the poor tend to be poor benefits.

If Labour plays this right, it could easily scoop up support from the Tories' natural constituency. The political battle for the middle classes starts here.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Election 2017: The 50 Labour MPs most at risk of losing their seats

Dozens of Labour MPs are at risk of losing their seats on June 8. Here are the 50 sitting MPs most at risk. 

Labour MPs representing marginal seats are at risk of losing their seats should their party's low polling numbers translate into electoral reality. Here's a full list of the 50 sitting MPs with the smallest majorities. 

Chris Matheson – City of Chester
Majority: 93 (0.2 per cent of total turnout)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Rupa Huq – Ealing Central & Acton
Majority: 274 (0.5 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Albert Owen – Ynys Mon
Majority: 229 (0.6 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Plaid Cymru

Ruth Cadbury – Brentford & Isleworth
Majority: 465 (0.9 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Margaret Greenwood – Wirral West
Majority: 417 (0.9 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Holly Lynch – Halifax
Majority: 428 (1 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Daniel Zeichner – Cambridge
Majority: 599 (1.1 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Liberal Democrats

Wes Streeting – Ilford North
Majority: 589 (1.2 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Paul Farrelly – Newcastle-under-Lyme
Majority: 650 (1.5 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

John Woodcock – Barrow & Furness
Majority: 795 (1.8 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Tulip Siddiq – Hampstead & Kilburn
Majority: 1138 (2.1 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Joan Ryan – Enfield North
Majority: 1086 (2.3 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Peter Kyle – Hove
Majority: 1236 (2.4 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Paula Sheriff – Dewsbury
Majority: 1451 (2.3 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Cat Smith – Lancaster & Fleetwood
Majority: 1265 (3.1 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Natascha Engel - North East Derbyshire
Majority: 1883 (3.9 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Gareth Thomas – Harrow West
Majority: 2208 (4.8 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Madeleine Moon – Bridgend
Majority: 1927 (4.9 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Karen Buck – Westminster North
Majority: 1977 (5 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Iain Murray – Edinburgh South
Majority: 2637 (5.3 per cent)
Second place in 2015: SNP

Rosena Allin-Khan – Tooting
Majority: 2842 (5.3 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Ian Lucas – Wrexham
Majority: 1831 (5.6 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Richard Burden – Birmingham Northfield
Majority: 2509 (5.9 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Mary Creagh – Wakefield
Majority: 2613 (6.1 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives
 

Vernon Coaker – Gedling
Majority: 2986 (6.2 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Clive Efford – Eltham
Majority: 2693 (6.2 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Rob Flello - Stoke-on-Trent South
Majority: 2539 (6.5 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Susan Jones – Clwyd South
Majority: 2402 (6.8 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Jim Cunningham – Coventry South
Majority: 3188 (7.3 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Jenny Chapman – Darlington
Majority: 3024 (7.6 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

David Hanson – Delyn
Majority: 2930 (7.7 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Gordon Marsden – Blackpool South
Majority: 2585 (8 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Julie Cooper – Burnley
Majority: 3244 (8.1 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Liberal Democrats

Mark Tami – Alyn & Deeside
Majority: 3343 (8.1 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Nic Dakin – Scunthorpe
Majority: 3134 (8.5 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Kerry McCarthy – Bristol East
Majority: 3980 (8.6 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Paul Flynn – Newport West
Majority: 3510 (8.7 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Alan Whitehead - Southampton Test
Majority: 3810 (8.8 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Neil Coyle – Bermondsey & Old Southwark
Majority: 4489 (8.8 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Liberal Democrats

Lindsay Hoyle (Deputy speaker) – Chorley
Majority: 4530 (8.8 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Helen Goodman – Bishop Auckland
Majority: 3508 (8.9 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Thangam Debbonaire – Bristol West
Majority: 5673 (8.9 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Green

Geoffrey Robinson – Coventry North West
Majority: 4509 (10 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservative

Graham Jones – Hyndburn
Majority: 4400 (10.2 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

David Crausby – Bolton North East
Majority: 4377 (10.2 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Ivan Lewis - Bury South
Majority: 3508 (8.9 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Liz McInnes – Heywood & Middleton
Majority: 5299 (10.9 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Ukip

Alison McGovern – Wirral South
Majority: 4599 (11 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

Alan Meale – Mansfield
Majority: 5135 (11.3 per cent)
Second place in 2015: Conservatives

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