Sixty nine per cent oppose Osborne's benefit cuts, new poll shows

Unlike the Chancellor, the majority of voters believe that benefits should rise in line with inflation or more.

One of the assumptions commonly made in the current debate over welfare is that the public are on the government's side. George Osborne's plan to cap benefit increases at 1 per cent for the next three years is viewed as a vote winner for the Tories, with Labour's opposition to it viewed as a vote loser. But a new poll by Ipsos MORI suggests this may not be the case. Asked how much benefits should rise by, 59 per cent said they should increase in line with inflation, 10 per cent said they should rise by more than inflation, 16 per cent should they should rise by less than inflation (the government's policy) and just 11 per cent said they should not rise at all (an option considered by Osborne but vetoed by the Lib Dems). Thus, in total, 69 per cent believe that benefits should increase in line with inflation or more.

The poll contrasts with an earlier survey by YouGov, which found that 52 per cent believe Osborne was right to increase benefits by 1 per cent, with 35 per cent opposed. What explains the discrepancy? One difference is that MORI's question, unlike YouGov's, named specific benefits - Jobseeker's Allowance, Income Support and Child Benefit - that would be affected by the policy, something that is likely to have increased opposition to it.

Ahead of next month's vote on the Welfare Uprating Bill, the discovery that voters do not inevitably side with Osborne should have the effect of stiffening Labour's resolve. Provided that it continues to make the case against the bill in reasoned terms, not least by pointing out that more than 60 per cent of those families affected are in work, the argument can be won. Indeed, MORI's poll suggests that it may have been won already.

Chancellor George Osborne leaves Number 11 Downing Street on December 12, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.