How Cameron and Clegg could reach a deal on cutting pensioner benefits

The coalition could pledge to means-test benefits from April 2015 and promise to increase them the previous year to ensure no one is left out of pocket.

With both Labour and the Lib Dems no longer committed to preserving universal benefits for pensioners, what's preventing the Tories executing their own U-turn? The answer is David Cameron's 2010 "read my lips" pledge to protect them (ironically made under pressure from Labour), which was subsequently included in the Coalition Agreement. After seeing the damage inflicted on the Lib Dems by their volte face over tuition fees, Cameron is determined to avoid anything that could provoke claims of betrayal, not least due to the renowned power of the grey vote (the demographic among which UKIP is performing strongest). 

But as Nick Clegg pointed out on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, the coalition's pledge to "protect key benefits for older people such as the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences, free bus travel, and free eye tests and prescriptions" only applies up to May 2015, while the current Spending Review is concerned with the 2015-16 spending period. The difficulty for Cameron is that six weeks of the period fall before the next general election, meaning any decision to means-test them would technically breach his pledge. As a result, Tory hopes of further welfare cuts, which would allow the government to limit cuts to areas such as policing and defence, have evaporated. As Clegg again stated yesterday, he is only prepared to consider additional cuts (such as the abolition of housing benefit for 25-year-olds and the limiting of child benefit to two children) if the coalition "starts at the top" by curbing benefits for the wealthy. In response, the Tories reaffirmed Cameron's 2010 pledge: "David Cameron promised to protect the benefits for pensioners who've worked hard and done the right thing - and we've kept that promise. Conservatives want to do more to fix the welfare system so that it works for the hard-working people who pay for it."

But with the Treasury still only a third of the way to meeting its Spending Review target of £11.5bn cuts (a total that will be far harder to reach with welfare cuts off the table), it's worth noting one way the coalition could resolve this conundrum. The government could announce that one or more of the benefits will be means-tested from April 2015 and increase payments to pensioners the previous year to ensure no one is left out of pocket. While administratively complex, this would offer the coalition a chance to break the deadlock on welfare. As Philip Hammond, Vince Cable and others battle to protect their departments from the full force of Osborne's axe, it's exactly the kind of imaginative compromise both sides might be tempted to explore. 

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg makes a speech at the G8 Open for Growth - Trade, Tax and Transparency conference at Lancaster House in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage