Osborne sets a welfare trap for Labour and a test for the coalition

The Chancellor's plan to increase benefits by just 1 per cent creates an awkward dilemma for Labour and Lib Dem MPs.

Everything George Osborne does is notoriously drenched in political calculation. The Autumn Statement was no exception. The Chancellor did not have much room for manoeuvre, given the enduring parlous state of the public finances, which remains (or should remain) the biggest story of the day. Inevitably, he fell back on familiar devices.

Much of the hard work of deficit reduction will be done, as was widely advertised in advance, by cuts to the benefits bill. The main new development, also much anticipated, is the decision to limit the up-rating of benefits to 1 per cent. Since that is lower than inflation, it will feel like a cut. The Chancellor rather sneakily announced the move in a passage that compared the burden faced by hard-working folk with the leisurely life of people on benefits. He repeated his favourite homily of the dogged commuter heading off to work, eyeing the feckless neighbour, blinds drawn, sleeping away a life on the dole. It is a popular theme with the Conservative press and in focus groups.

The problem is that, bundled up with Osborne’s supposed idle scroungers, are people who have jobs, work hard, struggle to make ends meet on low wages and currently depend on some combination of tax credits, child benefit, housing benefit, council tax benefit. The freeze affects them as much as it does those who are out of work (who, in any case, might reasonably be thought of as unfortunate jobseekers instead of pilfering dossers). Once all the number-crunching is done it will be interesting to see if the raising of the personal allowance adequately compensates people on low incomes for the hit they are taking in frozen, cut or withdrawn benefits*.

But politically the most significant element of the freeze is surely the announcement that it will be contained in a separate “Welfare Uprating Bill.” That is plainly an attempt by the Chancellor to put the opposition in an awkward dilemma. Either Miliband appals his party and signs up to the government’s position, which is highly unlikely, or he opposes the freeze/cut – a move that the Tories and most of the press would present as a profligate defence of scrounging. It is the same manoeuvre that was deployed with some effect in votes on Osborne’s benefits cap earlier this year. As I’ve noted before, this ploy has diminishing returns for the Tories. It presumes that the public will stay boundlessly enthusiastic about welfare cuts, regardless of who the recipients are and regardless of the social consequences. That is a risky calculation given the vulnerability of the Conservative brand to charges of heartlessness.

It is worth noting also that the Liberal Democrats were hardly more relaxed about the benefit cap than Labour. Nick Clegg’s party demanded changes to the measure in the Lords and some rebelled against it. As the squeeze on low-earning households is likely to deepen over the next few months and as the Lib Dems feel the need to assert their credentials as the in-house conscience of the coalition, their position on the latest benefits freeze will become very interesting to watch.

There are bound to be Lib Dem MPs with an impulse to reject Osborne’s latest assault on benefit-claimants. Labour will be more than usually glad of their company in a Commons vote on an issue that probes one of the party’s great electoral vulnerabilities – the charge of excess welfare spending. Osborne has set a trap for the opposition with his Uprating Bill. He has also set a potential test for coalition unity.

*Update: The Resolution Foundation has crunched the numbers and the answer is "no, it doesn't."

 

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories