Tory-Lib Dem battle on welfare heats up as Hammond demands further cuts

The Defence Secretary's intervention puts pressure on Clegg's party to keep its pledge to prevent further welfare cuts in this summer's Spending Review.

In order to stick to his current deficit reduction timetable, George Osborne needs to announce another £10bn of cuts in this summer's Spending Review (which will set spending totals for 2015-16) and cabinet divisions over where the axe should fall are becoming ever more visible. After Danny Alexander declared that he is opposed to further cuts in welfare spending, which was reduced by £18bn in the 2010 Spending Review and by £3.6bn in last year's Autumn Statement, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has given an interview to the Telegraph in which he says that he will not accept any significant reductions to the defence budget and that the burden of cuts should fall on welfare instead.

He tells the in-house paper of the armed forces: "There may be some modest reductions we can make through further efficiencies and we were look for those, but we won't be able to make significant further cuts without eroding military capability." And on welfare he says:

There is a body of opinion within Cabinet that we have to look at the welfare budget again. The welfare budget is the bit of public spending that has risen the furthest and the fastest and if we are going to get control of public spending on a sustainable basis, we are going to have to do more to tackle the growth in the welfare budget.

As Hammond suggests, he is not the only Conservative who believes his department should be exempt from further austerity (a phenomenon dubbed "fiscal nimbyism" by Treasury minister David Gauke). Theresa May (Home Office) and Chris Grayling (Justice) are also reported to be pushing for deeper welfare cuts in order to allow their budgets to be protected. The stage is set for a dramatic confrontation with the Lib Dems, who have staked their reputation on preventing further benefit cuts.

The one area of the welfare budget that the Lib Dems would be willing to see reduced is that concerning universal benefits for the elderly, such as the Winter Fuel Allowance, free bus passes and free TV licences. But Downing Street has already signalled that David Cameron's generel election pledge to protect these payments will be extended for another year in order to cover the Spending Review. As a result, any further cuts to welfare will again fall entirely on the working-age poor.

Before last year's Autumn Statement, Tory ministers, including Cameron and George Osborne, floated policies including the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s and the restriction of child benefit for families with more than two children only to see these proposals rightly vetoed by the Lib Dems. But the insistent Conservatives demands for further welfare cuts will likely see them examined again.

In this regard, the by-election victory in Eastleigh is a mixed blessing for the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg's boast that the result proves they "can be a party of government and still win" will weaken his negotiating hand when it comes to the Spending Review. After victory in Eastleigh, victory in the welfare battle will be a lot harder.


Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said further welfare cuts should be made in order to prevent "significant" cuts to defence. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.