Is benefit-bashing the next Osborne gamble to go wrong?

The Chancellor was ready to be seen as heartless. He didn't count on also looking hopeless.

The row about work capability assessments rumbles on. These are the tests that are meant to establish which recipients of incapacity benefit should be deemed fit and moved to a lower, more conditional rate. The Department for Work and Pensions insists the tests - administered by Atos, a private contractor - are an effective way of distinguishing between those genuinely unable to take on work and those who might simply have given up trying. Critics of the process allege it is a cynical device to shovel disabled and chronically ill people from a benefit that costs the Exchequer lots of money to one that costs less - without due regard for the personal circumstances and medical nuances of individual cases.

The accusation is that the government, confident of political cover in the form of the widespread assumption that many benefit claims are bogus, is saving money by targeting people unable to fight back and who mostly don't vote Tory. The rebuttal is that the DWP is working hard to get everyone into work - which for many people currently receiving incapacity benefit would have a rehabilitative effect, restoring independence and self esteem. As one government advisor put it to me recently: "Which part of your progressive tradition says it is ok to just let people rot on benefits their whole lives?" (Of course, for the DWP "tough love" narrative to have a happy ending, there need to be enough jobs out there ... )

It is worth noting that Atos first got contracts to do these assessments under the last Labour government. The assumption then, as now, was that family GPs were too indulgent in handing out 'sick notes' or felt intimidated if they refused to accept a patient's claim of inability to work. The current government has accelerated the process and ramped up the scale. A predictable consequence is the accusation of brutal targeting - setting semi-official minimum rates for assessors to clear people as fit for work. Atos deny this. The number of decisions successfully contested in court certainly suggests some cavalier assessment is going on. Today's story in the Guardian suggesting the DWP sought to censor information about the appeals process suggests ministers think the courts represent some kind if loophole for scroungers who might slip through the Atos net.

So far this whole story hasn't made a big political impact. That is largely because the received wisdom in Westminster is that public opinion supports the government almost without equivocation when it comes to benefit cuts. That view is backed up by polling, private and public, showing most people would gladly see the axe wielded harder and faster against the welfare budget. Labour, for that very reason, are squeamish about opposing benefit cuts. Their MPs hear enough complaints about 'scroungers' on the doorstep to know how toxic the issue can be. The famous squeezed middle that Ed Miliband would like to represent simmers with as much resentment against neighbours whose rent is paid by the state as against bankers.  

That sentiment is what lies behind the strategic decision by the Chancellor to target the welfare bill in his deficit reduction programme (that and, of course, the sheer size of the DWP spend, but the numbers are often inflated by pension payments.) Osborne's calculation is that you can hardly be too tough on benefits. Squeezing the so-called scroungers creates a nifty dividing line from Labour and keeps the public on side for painful cuts. The last government, the story goes, wasted all of the taxpayers' money handing out dole cheques for people to spend on strong lager and sit around watching Jeremy Kyle. The Tories are clearing up the mess. Etc.

A thought: what if Osborne is wrong about this? Opinion polls and Tory-leaning newspapers still endorse the benefit-bashing approach. But the Conservative approach, if it is not to look plain vindictive, relies on two things. First, the fiscal strategy must actually be seen to be working. Second, there must be jobs for people who are allegedly workshy to be ushered into. Both conditions are looking unmet in the absence of economic growth - and the real effect of departmental budget squeezes has hardly kicked in at all. At the start of this parliament it was reasonable to assume that many voters accepted the need for some harsh treatment at the hands of the coalition in the name of necessary budgetary correction. That support was conditional on the pain being delivered fairly and competently.  If, as one shadow cabinet minister puts it, the Tories look "hopeless as well as heartless" the political dynamic changes dramatically.

I doubt the ambient cultural noise around scrounging and benefit fraud will quieten down very quickly. But a prolonged slump, in which ever more people - and people higher up the income scale - feel insecure is bound to have an impact on perceptions of those who have fallen through the safety net. It is not inconceivable that scorn will turn to pity, especially if there are grounds for doubting the government's basic competence in delivering cuts fairly.  Lib Dem MPs will also come under increasing pressure in the next public spending review to distance themselves from Osborne's aggressive targeting of welfare. The junior coalition party has to present itself as the palliative agent in the mix, softening harsh Tory edges.

Besides, and this is the point where Tories should feel nervous, the whole "can't be too tough on benefits" approach came from the mind of Osborne, whose greatest strategic gamble so far - on the economy - has unravelled. If, as seems now apparent, he is not the Chess Grandmaster of politics as he was once advertised to be, is it not possible that he has called this one wrong too?

George Osborne plans to reduce the welfare budget by a further £10bn. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

As Donald Trump once asked, how do you impeach a President?

Starting the process is much easier than you might think. 

Yes, on Friday, Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. And no, you can’t skip the next four years.

But look on the bright side. Those four years might never happen. On the one hand, he could tweet the nuclear codes before the day is out. On the other, his party might reach for their own nuclear button – impeachment. 

So, how exactly can you impeach a President? Here is our rough guide.

OK, what does impeachment actually mean?

Impeachment is the power to remove an elected official for misconduct. Here’s the relevant clause of the US Constitution:

“The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Impeachment is actually a legacy of British constitutional history, and dates back as far as 1376, but according to our own parliamentary website, in the UK “this procedure is considered obsolete”. 

It’s up to the US Congress to decide whether to impeach and convict a President. Both houses are controlled by the Republicans, so impeaching Trump would mean turning against one who is – technically at least – one of their own. Since he’s already insulted the neighbouring country, supported discrimination against Muslim immigrants and mocked a disabled reporter, their impeachment threshold seems pretty high. But let’s imagine he surpasses himself. What next?

The impeachment process

Members of the House of Representatives – the lower chamber of the Congress – can start the impeachment process. They in turn may be encouraged to do so by voters. For example, there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to people who tried to impeach Barack Obama. One Impeach Obama supporter simply gave his reason as stopping the President from “pushing his agenda”. Another wanted to do so on the grounds of gross incompetence...

But for an impeachment attempt to actually work, the impeacher needs to get the support of the house. If a majority agree with the idea of impeaching the elected official, they nominate members to act as prosecutors during the subsequent trial. This takes place in the Senate, the upper house of Congress. In most impeachments, the Senate acts as judge and jury, but when a President is impeached, the chief justice of the United States presides.     

Two-thirds of the Senate must vote for impeachment in order to convict. 

What are the chances of impeaching Donald Trump?

So if Trump does something that even he can’t tweet away, and enough angry voters email their representatives, Congress can begin the process of impeachment. But will that be enough to get him out?

It’s often assumed that Richard Nixon was kicked out because he was impeached for the cover up known as the Watergate Scandal. In fact, we’ll never know, because he resigned before the House could vote on the process.

Two decades later, the House got further with Bill Clinton. When it emerged Clinton had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, an intern, he initially denied it. But after nearly 14 hours of debate, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives decided to impeach him on grounds including perjury and obstruction of justice.

In the Senate trial, Clinton’s defenders argued that his actions did not threaten the liberty of the people. The majority of Senators voted to acquit him. 

The only other Presidential impeachment took place in 1868, when President Andrew Johnson, removed a rabble-rouser from his Cabinet. The guilty vote fell short of the two-thirds majority, and he was acquitted.

So, what’s the chances of impeaching Trump? I’ll leave you with some numbers…

 

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