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.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left