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.

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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.