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.