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: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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