Why Labour has reason to hope

New data shows that 88 per cent of Osborne's cuts are still to come.

The benefits cap, which MPs voted through yesterday, is becoming an ever bigger headache for Labour. In the week that Fred Goodwin lost his knighthood and Stephen Hester lost his bonus it's worth remembering that the family next door living off benefits grates far more with voters than the banker in his mansion.

Indeed, the latest polls confirm that the policy is probably the most popular measure the government has announced. The most recent YouGov survey shows that 72 per cent of voters support the £26,000 cap and that 52 per cent want a lower threshold. Labour's reasoned objections to the cap fail to cut through because few voters are interested in the facts. They've simply fallen for the populist line that "no family should receive more in out-of-work benefits than the average family receives for going out of work". Liam Byrne's insistence that "we are in favour of a benefit cap, but we like a cap that doesn't backfire" makes little sense to voters. Why would a cap of £26,000 - an amount that seems generous to most people- backfire?

The one hope for Labour is that as the full force of Osborne's austerity programme is felt the mood will shift. The startling fact from yesterday's Institute for Fiscal Studies Green Budget that 88 per cent of the planned public spending cuts and 88 per cent of the planned welfare cuts are still to come explains why Ed Balls and Ed Miliband believe they can still turn round the polls (the Tories currently enjoy a 12-point lead as the party that would best handle the economy). As many families experience unemployment for the first time in a generation, these ratings will begin to shift.

For this reason, it's unsurprising to learn this morning from ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie that Number 10 is not forecasting a Tory majority at the next election. As I've noted before, even after the boundary changes have been implemented, the Tories will still need a seven point lead to win a majority. Labour, conversely, will require a lead of just 4 per cent. Another hung parliament looks like the most likely outcome of the next election. Those Conservative optimists and those Labour pessimists who expect to see a Tory majority in 2015 should look again at the data.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.