James Purnell: I could have been Iain Duncan Smith

Former cabinet minister reveals that he proposed a universal credit to Gordon Brown.

There's quite a revelation from James Purnell in today's Times (£). He writes that he proposed a version of Iain Duncan Smith's "universal credit" to Gordon Brown and resigned after he was rebuffed.

Purnell writes:

Before I resigned from the cabinet, I proposed a similar plan to Mr Brown. But he was scared that there would be losers, and his refusal to give me any answer made me think that there was no point in staying inside the government to try to influence him.

It's now hard to find a mainstream politican or thinker who isn't in favour of the universal credit, at least in principle, and Purnell deepens the consensus. He describes the IDS plan as a "good reform" and observes (in a point obscured by George Osborne) that "we lose more money in mistakes than in fraud". As Duncan Smith is hailed by the left and the right as the most ambitious reformer since Beveridge, one can hear Purnell mutter: "I could have been a contender."

But he fails to ask the $64,000 question: is welfare reform possible at a time of high unemployment? The truth is that there are no jobs for many of the unemployed, nor will there be in the years to come. The number of long-term unemployed has more than doubled since 2008 to 797,000, while the number of vacancies has fallen to 467,000 – a jobs deficit of 330,000.

Yet, such objections aside, there's now remarkably little to choose between Labour and the Conservatives on welfare. The coalition's much-anticipated assault on universal (or "middle-class") benefits didn't materialise. Child benefit for higher earners was abolished (though the plan looks unenforceable), but the Winter Fuel Allowance, free bus passes and free TV licences were all retained in their present form.

It now seems that, against expectations, the key dividing lines of this parliament will not be over welfare reform.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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David Cameron’s starter homes: poor policy, but good politics

David Cameron's electoral coalition of buy-to-let retirees and dual-earner couples remains intact: for now.

The only working age demographic to do better under the Coalition was dual-earner couples – without children. They were the main beneficiaries of the threshold raise – which may “take the poorest out of tax” in theory but in practice hands a sizeable tax cut to peope earning above average. They will reap the fruits of the government’s Help to Buy ISAs. And, not having children, they were insulated from cuts to child tax credits, reductions in public services, and the rising cost of childcare. (Childcare costs now mean a couple on average income, working full-time, find that the extra earnings from both remaining in work are wiped out by the costs of care)

And they were a vital part of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. Voters who lived in new housing estates on the edges of seats like Amber Valley and throughout the Midlands overwhelmingly backed the Conservatives.

That’s the political backdrop to David Cameron’s announcement later today to change planning to unlock new housing units – what the government dubs “Starter Homes”. The government will redefine “affordable housing”  to up to £250,000 outside of London and £450,000 and under within it, while reducing the ability of councils to insist on certain types of buildings. He’ll describe it as part of the drive to make the next ten years “the turnaround decade”: years in which people will feel more in control of their lives, more affluent, and more successful.

The end result: a proliferation of one and two bedroom flats and homes, available to the highly-paid: and to that vital component of Cameron’s coalition: the dual-earner, childless couple, particularly in the Midlands, where the housing market is not yet in a state of crisis. (And it's not bad for that other pillar of the Conservative majority: well-heeled pensioners using buy-to-let as a pension plan.)

The policy may well be junk-rated but the politics has a triple A rating: along with affluent retirees, if the Conservatives can keep those dual-earner couples in the Tory column, they will remain in office for the forseeable future.

Just one problem, really: what happens if they decide they want room for kids? Cameron’s “turnaround decade” might end up in entirely the wrong sort of turnaround for Conservative prospects.

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