Osborne's new spending cap points to more welfare cuts

The Chancellor's plan to limit "Annually Managed Expenditure" shows how a Tory government would seek to further curb benefit spending.

George Osborne has already capped benefits for out-of-work families at £26,000 a year, now he's proposing to go further and introduce a cap on total welfare spending. One of the most significant announcements in the Budget was that the Chancellor is planning "a new limit" on what's called "Annually Managed Expenditure" (AME). This is the area of spending concerned with non-departmental items such as welfare payments, debt interest and EU budget contributions (which account for around 50 per cent of all state spending). It is the automatic rise in the first two, in particular, that has made it so hard for the government to stick to its deficit reduction targets. Osborne is now proposing to end this fiscal irresponsibility (as he sees it) by introducing a limit on "a significant proportion" of this expenditure. 

In practice, this will almost certainly mean even greater welfare cuts. Although Osborne said that the new cap would be set out in a way "that allows the automatic stabilisers to operate", he added that it would "bring real control to areas of public spending that had been out of control." And since the government has less influence over debt interest payments (the markets decide those) and EU budget contributions (the EU 27 decide those) than it does over welfare spending, it is benefits that will bear the brunt of the squeeze.

The Treasury is briefing that the new cap will not affect the government's plan to avoid further welfare cuts in this summer's 2015-16 Spending Review (a victory for the Lib Dems) but it is a signal that a future Conservative government (or a future Tory-led coalition) would seek to further curb welfare spending. What form could this take? Osborne is likely to extend the 1 per cent cap on working-age benefit increases beyond 2015-16 and to look again at measures such as the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s and the restriction of child benefit for families with more than two children.

Other policies trailed by David Cameron in his welfare speech last summer included:

- Preventing teenagers from claiming benefits as soon as they leave school.

- Paying benefits in kind (like free school meals), rather than in cash.

- Reducing benefit levels for the long-term unemployed.

- A lower housing benefit cap. Cameron said that the current limit of £20,000 was still too high. 

I expect some or all of these are under consideration for the next Conservative manifesto. 

A young boy plays football in a run down street with boarded up houses in the Govan area of Glasgow, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR 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