Cameron adds to the absurdity on the Philpott case and welfare

The PM says welfare must not be "a lifestyle choice". But Philpott's wife and girlfriend were in work.

David Cameron has waded into the increasingly absurd debate over the lessons from the Philpott case, backing George Osborne's comments ("absolutely right") and declaring that "we want to say welfare is there to help people who want to work hard, but it's not a lifestyle choice"

What the Prime Minister either doesn't know or won't say is that the problem in this instance was emphatically not one of "welfare dependency". Both Philpott's wife and girlfriend were in work and so would have been unaffected by the coalition's £26,000 benefit cap (an unjust and ineffective measure in any case). The problem was that their benefits, like their salaries, were paid directly into Philpott's bank account. The guilty party, as I wrote yesterday, wasn't the welfare state but a violent, misogynistic bully intent on controlling the lives of the two women and their children. No one should believe, for instance, that limiting child benefit to two children per family (as Iain Duncan Smith has proposed) would have prevented his crimes. 

If there is a lesson for government policy from this extreme and unususal case, it is for the need for earlier and more effective intervention by social services. The idea that we can reasonably draw any useful conclusions about the welfare system should be rejected by all sane-minded people. 

David Cameron delivers a speech on immigration in Ipswich on March 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.