George Osborne thinks he can win by appealing to mean-spiritedness

Here's why he's wrong.

During his pre-budget statement last week, the Chancellor George Osborne set out his intent to ensure that many benefits only rise by one per cent for the next three years.

This has been hailed by some on the right of politics as a fiscally responsible thing to do and a way of ensuring that benefits do not rise by more than many people's wages have in the last few years. There have been others who have claimed that it is regressive and unfair to heap such a burden of real-terms cuts on those in society least able to afford it.

But what many think, regardless of what they consider the rights and wrongs of the decision, is that Osborne has set a clever trap for Eds Miliband and Balls to fall into. The theory goes that public opinion is on the side of those who want to "control" the benefits bill and that anyone arguing against this will essentially be putting themselves on the side of the "skivers" as opposed to the "strivers".

As it happens it is beginning to look like Osborne has actually got this calculation wrong with 69 per cent of people in a recent poll saying they thought benefits should rise in line with inflation or higher. However, even without polling evidence, this move just feels wrong. The idea that the poorest in society should suffer a real terms cut in their income when many of those people are already close to the edge financially (witness the huge rise of payday lenders in recent years for example) sits very ill with me.

Part of the problem that was identified almost straight away by opponents of the measure is that 60 per cent of those affected by the cuts are actually in work. But really, that shouldn't matter either. Trying to pitch those who are working against those who are not is the worst kind of politics. The vast majority of those out of work would love to have a job and although unemployment is falling it is still far too high. Many of those who Osborne seems to be painting as skivers currently have no choice.

He has made a serious political mistake here. Ten years ago Theresa May made a speech where she described how the Conservatives had the unwelcome mantle of "The Nasty Party". This resonated because it rang true. David Cameron has spent years trying to detoxify his party with trips to the Arctic, endless speeches on the NHS and all sorts of other measures to attempt to reassure voters that they have changed.

With measures like this one per cent rise Osborne is retoxifying his party. He is punishing the poorest in society for an economic situation that they had nothing to do with creating and doing it in such a way as to try and pitch different sections of society against each other. He seems to be hoping that envy will win the day.

I hope and expect he is wrong about this. Not because opinion polls tell us so. But because I do not recognise the mean-spirited picture of Britain that he seems determined to paint. We're better than that.

The trap he thought he had set has sprung shut on the Chancellor as he tried to tip-toe away from it.

He and his party will ultimately pay a heavy price for this.

Mark Thompson is a political blogger and commentator who edits the award winning Mark Thompson's Blog and is on Twitter @MarkReckons.

George Osborne.
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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.