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Tories go on the attack after Balls says Labour's welfare cap would include pensions

The shadow chancellor's latest display of fiscal responsibility is a major political gamble.

Ed Miliband and Ed Balls at last year's Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

When Ed Miliband announced that Labour would introduce a cap on structural welfare spending, the assumption was that it would not include spending on pensioners. But on The Sunday Politics, Ed Balls revealed that the cap would include this area. He said: "George Osborne is going to announce his cap in two weeks' time. I don't know whether he will include pensioner spending or exclude it. At the moment our plan is to include it."

This is sensible policy; pensioners currently account for 42 per cent (£85bn) of all welfare spending, a total that will rise significantly as the population ages and as the economy recovers (reducing cyclical benefit spending). If Balls and Miliband are serious about reducing the social security bill, they cannot afford to exclude them from the cap.

But the politics are difficult for Labour. The Tories, who have previously signalled that the state pension will not be included in George Osborne's cap on annually managed expenditure, will now challenge Balls and Miliband to say how they would reduce spending on the elderly. Would they abandon the coalition's commitment to "triple lock" the state pension, so that it rises by the rate of inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest)? The Tory Treasury Twitter account has already gone on the attack.

On the programme, Balls refused to rule out cutting spending on pensioners in order to avoid breaching the cap but also said that, while means-testing the winter fuel allowance (which would save just £100m), Labour would protect other universal benefits such as free bus passes, free prescriptions and free TV licences (the administrative costs of means-testing the latter would outweigh the savings, Balls suggested). But unless Labour is willing to make reductions elsewhere, the Tories will dismiss the cap as meaningless, while highlighting the £21bn of cuts they have announced to working age benefits.

Since the over-65s are more likely to vote than any other age group (76 per cent did in 2010 compared to 65 per cent of the total population), the Tories clearly believe that there are few votes to be won in running on a platform of lower spending on the elderly. But expect Cameron to now come under pressure from fiscal conservatives to match Labour's direction of travel on pensioner benefits.

Update: Unsurprisingly, Labour has quickly rebutted the Tory line that it "would cut pensions", but has said it would be "peverse" to exclude spending on pensioners from the cap. At present, however, it can only point to increases in the retirement age and means-testing the winter fuel allowance as examples of how it would restrain spending. A source told me:

Labour supports the triple lock on the state pension. But as Ed Balls said, it would be perverse to exclude overall spending on pensioners and the impact of an ageing society from any sensible and long-term fiscal plan to monitor and control structural social security spending. That's why we have supported increases in the retirement age as people live longer and why we have also said we would not pay the winter allowance to the richest 5 per cent of pensioners. We will look at the details of the government's cap when it is announced in the spending review as we develop the details of our own.