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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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.