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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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.