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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.