How will the coalition justify cuts to winter fuel allowance?

In an embarrassing revelation for the Conservatives, Vince Cable has confirmed that the benefit is u

The most important detail in Vince Cable's taped indiscretion is arguably not that he sees walking out of the coalition as his "nuclear option" – that much we knew – but the confirmation that the winter fuel allowance is under threat.

Talking to two reporters posing as constituents, the Business Secretary referred to the "cack-handed" way in which the scrapping of child benefit for higher earners had been handled, and said: "They haven't yet done the winter fuel payments, but that's coming, I think."

Winter fuel payments last surfaced as a political hot potato in August, when the Financial Times reported that the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, wanted to pare back some of the £2.7bn spent on winter fuel payments, a universal benefit paid to the over-sixties.

Yet retaining the benefit was a Conservative manifesto pledge, defended by David Cameron in the strongest terms during the televised debates:

We will keep the winter fuel allowance . . . These statements by Labour [that the Conservatives would cut the winter fuel allowance] are quite simply lies. I don't use the word "lie" very often, but I am using it today because they are lies.

The coalition agreement promises to "protect key benefits for older people", which is not the same as ring-fencing and does not preclude the possibility of restricting the number of people who qualify for them, as with child benefit.

While the coalition agreement has already shown itself to be flexible, such a U-turn on winter fuel allowance would be intensely embarrassing for the Conservatives.

It will be interesting to watch Downing Street's response to this latest claim: an outright denial that the benefit is under threat could come back to bite them, yet vagueness will also be seen as a climbdown from their previously unequivocal position.

As Britain faces the coldest winter on record and the news agenda is dominated by the "big freeze", this will be difficult to justify. We can be certain that the issue will not go away.

On a separate point, Cable's comparison of working with the coalition to "fighting a war" and his confidence that he could "bring the government down" raise questions over his future as a member of the cabinet. If he is pushed out or walks out and is replaced by David Laws, it would immeasurably tip the balance of power away from left-wing Liberal Democrats. His "nuclear" option might not have quite the desired effect.

UPDATE, 2.40pm: At a joint press conference this afternoon, the Prime Minister refused to rule out any further changes to the winter fuel allowance, saying only that the government has made its choice on the winter fuel allowance and that this won't be changing.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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