George Osborne and David Cameron speak to business leaders at the AQL centre on February 5, 2015 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Osborne's courting of the silver vote shows the Tories' limited ambition

The Conservatives are more focused on winning back traditional supporters than attracting new ones. 

Like his predecessor but one, Gordon Brown, George Osborne is an intensely political Chancellor. Wherever possible, economic policies are designed to advance electoral aims. That is the case with today's announcement that the government's pensioner bonds scheme will be extended by three months. The bonds, which pay an interest rate of 2.8 per cent for one year and 4 per cent for three years, have been purchased by 610,000 over-65s since they were launched last year, making them "the most successful saving product this country had ever seen" (as Osborne told Andrew Marr this morning). 

There is a simple explanation for the largesse showered on the elderly: they vote. In 2010, 76 per cent of over-65s turned out, more than any other age group, with the Conservatives polling 44 per cent among them - a 13-point lead over Labour. But the surge in support for Ukip among pensioners (nearly 60 per cent of the party's supporters are over-55) means the Tories need to work to win them back. In addition to Osborne's gifts, they have pledged to triple-lock the state pension (so that it increases by the rate of inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest), and will almost certainly continue to protect universal benefits such as Winter Fuel Payments, free bus passes and free TV licences.

There is anger among the libertarian right at this preferential treatement. The IEA's head of public policy Ryan Bourne wrote of the pensioner bonds: "This comes at a time when the government could borrow by issuing three-year bonds with yields of around 0.6 per cent. In other words, the government is deliberately borrowing more expensively than it needs to, guaranteeing a healthy return for pensioners who are wealthy enough to be able to purchase up to the £10,000 limit. No wonder the registration website keeps crashing.

"This bond issuance is not just misguided because it crowds out other investment activity. Borrowing more expensively than the government needs to is effectively a direct subsidy to wealthier pensioners from the working-age population. Though in the grand scheme of things this will only be a subsidy to the tune of hundreds of millions, rather than billions, the likely cost of this policy will be as high as several of the controversial welfare eligibility changes which the government claimed were absolutely necessary to help improve the public finances."

But as well as the morality of this approach, the Tories should consider the politics, too. Courting the silver vote may make short-term sense but if they are to ever win a majority again, the Conservative need to do far more to appeal to the young, a group among whom they currently struggle. The Tories are fond of deriding Labour’s alleged "35 per cent strategy", under which a coalition of the party’s core supporters and Lib Dem defectors allow it to crawl over the electoral finish line – yet today's announcement is a reminder of their own limited ambitions. The grey vote might enable the Tories to cling on as the single largest party but it offers no route to a majority. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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