How Osborne's benefit cuts could hurt the Tories in marginal seats

Labour releases data showing that thousands of working families in Conservative marginals will be hit by the cuts.

Labour is increasingly confident that it is not just right in principle to oppose George Osborne's 1 per cent cap on benefit increases but also right politically. While Osborne, the Conservatives' chief election strategist, believes that the measure will increase support for the Tories among those voters who considered the last government too soft on welfare claimants, Labour argues that he has miscalculated by hitting the very "strivers" he claims to support. Sixty per cent of the real-terms cut to benefits will fall on working households and, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the average one earner couple will be £534 a year worse off by 2015.

Overnight, Labour released some fascinating HMRC data showing how the cuts to tax credits will hit voters in Conservative marginals. In the Tories' 60 most vulnerable seats, there are an average of 15 working families receiving tax credits for every one marginal voter. For instance, in North Warwickshire, the party's most marginal seat (held by 54 votes at the last election), there are 6,800 families receiving working tax credits. In Broxtowe, the 10th most marginal (held by 389 votes), the figure is 5,700, in St Albans, the 40th most marginal (held by 2,243 votes), it is 6,700.

A Labour spokesman said: "Everyone knows the next election will be a living standards election. George Osborne's strivers' tax is going to hit working families in Tory-held seats. He thought he was playing a clever political game, but instead he is likely to find he has cost the seats of dozens of his colleagues."

If this sounds a lot like wishful thinking, the thesis that austerity will cost the Tories votes at the next election remains a plausible one. A frequent complaint heard by Conservative candidates on the doorstep in 2010 was that the party planned to take away their tax credits. Now it has done so, the electoral fallout is hard to predict. But the belief that in-work voters deprived of their benefits will be assuaged by the knowledge that others are suffering more is no more convincing than the belief that they will fall into the arms of Labour.

Chancellor George Osborne is seen during a visit to the offices of HM Revenue & Customs. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.