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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Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

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

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