PMQs review: Cameron hints at protecting all pensioner benefits

The PM's warning that means-testing pensioner benefits would raise only "a very small amount of money" was the most notable moment in a sombre session.

After the sad news of the death of Labour MP Paul Goggins, the first PMQs of the year was a sombre affair, with both Ed Miliband and David Cameron making fine tributes. For the first time in recent months, Miliband split his questions, starting with three on the floods followed later by three on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). This allowed him to shift into a more offensive gear, criticising Cameron for his inaction over the terminals, without it jarring too much after the tributes to Goggins.

FOBTs (dubbed the 'crack cocaine of gambling') are tricky territory for Cameron, with a significant number of Tory MPs and the Daily Mail wanting to seem them more tightly regulated. In response to Miliband, who has called for local authorities to be given the power to reduce the number of betting terminals in their area, Cameron announced that the government's review into them will report in the spring and said that he was making "a reasonable point". Based on that, it seems likely that Cameron will bring forward legislation in the near future. He emphasised that if he and Miliband "work together" they can "sort it out" and that "there may well be more to do". With the Lib Dems having long campaigned inside the coalition for action on the terminals, a cross-party consensus is within sight.

But the most significant moment of the session was undoubtedly Cameron's response to a question on pensioner benefits. After the DUP's Nigel Dodds welcomed his pledge to maintain the triple lock on the state pension and asked him whether he would similarly promise to preserve the winter fuel allowance as a universal benefit, Cameron replied "we will set out out plans in our manifesto". But, significantly, he added that means-testing the allowance, for instance by withdrawing it from those who pay the 40p tax rate, would save only "a very small amount of money". That is Cameron's first public hint that he is likely to repeat his 2010 pledge to ring-fence pensioner benefits. Since the winter fuel allowance is the most expensive of the main pensioner benefits (costing £2.2bn last year) it seems equally likely that free bus passes (£1bn) and free TV licences (£600m) will similarly be protected.

It is rather disingenuous of Cameron to protest that means-testing the benefits would raise little money when one could say the same of measures such as the benefit cap (which is forecast to raise £110m) and the bedroom tax (£490m - and both, as analysts have warned, may end up costing more than they save by increasing homelessness and other social ills). But the view among the Tories is that, having lost many pensioner voters to UKIP since 2010, they can't afford to hand Nigel Farage another attack line.

David Cameron attends a press conference at the end of the EU leaders' summit at the European Council building on December 20, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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It's official, Brexit means breakfast — or at least as far as John McDonnell is concerned

The shadow chancellor is not the first politician to confuse the UK's EU exit with the morning meal.

Who doesn’t hate a chaotic breakfast? As the shadow chancellor John McDonnell clearly knows, there is nothing worse than cold toast, soggy cereal and over boiled eggs. The mere thought of it makes the mole shiver.

In the middle of a totally cereal, sorry, speech this morning on Brexit and its impact on the economy, McDonnell expressed his fear that the government was “hurtling towards a chaotic breakfast". 

Addressing the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London, he argued that Theresa May’s government could decide to opt for a Brexit deal that favoured Tory “special interests" at the expense of the rest of the country.

Warming to his theme he accused Tory cabinet ministers of looking to “cook up” deals for their “friends in the City of London”, before making the powerful point that "Tory voters don't want a bankers' breakfast any more than I do". Bang, the same foodie blooper dropped twice in one speech. It seems that breakfast really does mean breakfast, or at least as far as McDonnell and the Labour Party are concerned.

He can take solace in the fact that he is not the only politician to fall into this particular verbal trap, it seems a fear of a lousy breakfast is shared by ministers across the political spectrum. In his speech to Conservative Party conference, Welsh Tory leader, Andrew T Davies, trumpeted the fact that the government would make the morning meal its top priority. “Conference, mark my words,” he said “we will make breakfast. . . Brexit, a success.” The Mole loves to hear such a passionate commitment to the state of the nation’s Weetabix.

And, it’s not just politicos who are mixing up the UK’s impending exit from EU with the humble morning meal. The BBC presenter Aaron Heslehurst was left red-faced after making multiple references to “breakfast” during a live broadcast, including one where he stated that it “had opened up a brave new world for UK exporters”. Who knew?

And there was your mole thinking that the hardest part of breakfast was getting up and out of the burrow early enough to enjoy it. Food for thought indeed.


I'm a mole, innit.