Cameron hints that child benefit cut could be eased

"We always said we would look at the steepness of the curve," says PM, as worries over the female vo

Removing child benefit from higher rate taxpayers was a coalition policy which drew criticism from across the board -- and now David Cameron has hinted that it could be watered down.

After the plan to cut child benefit for higher earners was announced in 2010, inconsistencies quickly emerged: stay-at-home mothers would be penalised, as a household in which one parent earns just over the threshold of £42,000 would lose all their child benefits, while another with two earners of £41,000 each would not be affected.

Cameron told the House magazine:

Some people say that's the unfairness of it, that you lose the child benefit if you have a higher rate taxpayer in the family. Two people below the level keep the benefit. So, there's a threshold, a cliff-edge issue. We always said we would look at the steepness of the curve, we always said we would look at the way it's implemented and that remains the case, but again I don't want to impinge on the Chancellor's Budget.

This reflects growing concern about falling support for the Conservatives amongst female voters. (New Statesman blogger Gavin Kelly has written extensively on this). The cut to child benefit is just one on a long list of policies which hit women harder than men: cuts to Sure Start, the abolition of baby bond and the health in maternity grant, and the three-year child benefit freeze. Indeed, a recent study by the House of Commons Library found that of the £2.37 billion to be raised through tax credit cuts and caps on public sector pay, 73 per cent (£1.73 billion) will come from women, and just 27 per cent (£638 million) from men.

It is no surprise, then, that the government is thinking of somehow sweetening the pill (this has been on the cards since September at least). But how much change are we talking? The Welfare Minister Chris Grayling said last night that he had "heard nothing to suggest we are about to change direction massively", while George Osborne has previously said that a more sophisticated way of implementing the cut would be too expensive.

So we are unlikely to see the cut -- due in 2013 -- scrapped all together. It is a big part of the coalition's deficit reduction programme, and could save. £2.5 billion a year. What is more likely is that it will be examined to see if a taper can be applied to the system to ease its implementation. It is speculated that Osborne could make a move as soon as the next Budget. Exactly what that move is -- and whether it successfully halts falling support amongst female voters -- remains to be seen.

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

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Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

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