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
Show Hide image

Who should be happiest about the polls: Jeremy Corbyn, or Theresa May?

Labour believe their small lead will only grow – but some Tories think that the only way for the opposition is down. 

Who should be happiest about the state of the polls? The intriguing feature of the polls at the moment is that all Britain’s first, second and third parties can all claim to be happy about them.

 Labour, understandably, point to their small lead over the Conservatives, the transformation in Jeremy Corbyn’s approval ratings, and the continuing popularity of the party’s platform.

And while no Labour politician is looking forward to a recession, most frontbenchers expect one, with the economic indicators all looking gloomy. That’s why the party’s narrow advantage in the polls, in of itself enough to guarantee a minority Labour government if it were borne out at an election, is seen as such good news by the leadership. They expect circumstances to extend, rather than contract the party’s small lead.

Liberal Democrat MPs are cheered, meanwhile, that the party is not suffering in the polls as it usually does outside of election season, when it tends to shrink from public view. Despite the fact their departing leader, Tim Farron, has largely only been in the news when his views about faith are up for discussion, the party actually appears to have made up a few points in the polls since the election, which is further cause for celebration.

It’s harder to find Conservative MPs in a cheery mood at the moment. Most are going into the summer recess in a state of shock, and are demoralised and deeply worried that Corbyn is on the verge of Downing Street.

But some more optimistic MPs can also, fairly, argue that the polls aren’t as bad as they ought to be. The economy is slowing, inflation is hitting take-home pay, their leader is hugely unpopular, and the party is publicly divided. Yet they are only very narrowly behind – suggesting that if they can get wages rising, ride out the downturn, resolve Brexit and unify around a new, more popular leader, they could be back on the front foot very quickly.

Their difficulty, of course, as I outline in my column this week, is that Conservative MPs cannot agree on how to get wages rising, ride out the downturn, or resolve Brexit – let alone on who their new, more popular leader might be. 

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

0800 7318496