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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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.