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.
Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.