The Tories are in danger of appearing complacent over child benefit cuts

Even if the majority of voters support the policy, those who don't could yet hurt the Tories.

In a bid to assuage Tory MPs fearful that the child benefit cuts could be their 10p tax moment, the Conservatives have released new private polling showing that the overwhelming majority of voters support the policy, including those who will lose out. The party's survey, conducted by Populus (and reportedly commissioned by George Osborne), found that 82 per cent of people favour plans to taper the benefit away from households in which at least one person earns more than £50,000 (those in which one person earns at least £60,000 will lose it all together), with just 13 per cent opposed. In addition, 78 per cent of people with children under-18 support the policy, as do 74 per cent of households earning over £69,000, 82 per cent of households with income between £55,000 and £69,000, and 80 per cent of households with income between £41,000 and £55,000.

We've yet to see the wording of the question used by the Tories, but the results are in line with previous polls on the subject. Despite this, it's hard to avoid the sense that the party is in danger of lapsing into complacency. As HM Revenue & Customs will inform those affected this week, families will lose £1,055.60 a year for a first child and a further £696.80 a year for each additional child, meaning that a family with three children stands to lose £2,449.20 - the equivalent of a £3,500 pay cut (since child benefit is untaxed).

The Tories argue that the policy, which takes effect in January 2013, differs from Gordon Brown's ill-fated decision to abolish the 10p tax rate in at least three respects. First, while Brown insisted for months, against all evidence to the contrary, that there would be "no losers" from the move, the coalition has been clear that some will lose out - they can't be accused of deception. Second, while it was the low-paid who lost out under Brown's policy (they saw their marginal tax rate double from 10p to 20p), it is the top 15 per cent of earners who lose out under the Tories'. Finally, while the 10p tax move was widely viewed as "unfair", the majority of voters believe the child benefit cuts are fair.

But as the Daily Express's Patrick O'Flynn suggests, more important than question of how many oppose the policy, is the intensity of their opposition. If the 13 per cent opposed to the move vote against the Tories in protest at the next election, the party will suffer significant losses. Thus, Osborne's poll, if intended to reassure Conservative backbenchers, is likely to have the opposite effect. Rather than persuading Tory MPs that the Chancellor understands their concerns, it will only confirm their fear that he doesn't.

Chancellor George Osborne speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester earlier this month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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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.