George Osborne and David Cameron speak to business leaders at the AQL centre on February 5, 2015 in Leeds. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

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