When David Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005, Britain was in the middle of a prolonged economic boom. Displaying little interest in economic policy, Mr Cameron spoke hopefully of “sharing the proceeds of growth” and defined himself through his fashionable social liberalism. When the crash came, unseating the assumptions on which the UK had been governed for 30 years, his intellectual hollowness was exposed. Since becoming Prime Minister, Mr Cameron has struggled to articulate a coherent programme beyond the need for deficit reduction, a task that, in any case, is proving far more difficult than he anticipated.
His speech on welfare reform on 25 June was characteristic of his limitations. What should have been an occasion for considered reflection on an issue of profound importance was used to placate his restive party with a series of populist announcements. Having once decried the Blair government for “initiativitis”, Mr Cameron is now addicted to it.
For a government seeking to reduce public spending, there is no easier target than welfare. The polls show that voters overwhelmingly favour reduced benefit levels. It was cynical, therefore, for Mr Cameron to declare in his speech that “governing is not a popularity contest”. Equally cynical was his decision to concentrate his cuts on the young. Were Mr Cameron a principled fiscal conservative, he would have proposed reducing expenditure on the elderly, who account for £110bn of the annual £207bn welfare budget. Yet he pledged to maintain universal pensioner benefits, including free bus passes, free television licences and the winter fuel payment for the wealthy.
In the case of the young, at a time when youth unemployment stands at 1.01 million (21.9 per cent), Mr Cameron signalled his intention to prevent unemployed school leavers from claiming benefits and to abolish housing benefit for the under-25s. In justifying the latter on the grounds that housing benefit “discourages” young people from working, the Prime Minister perpetuated the biggest myth about the benefit: that it is a payment for the unemployed. The truth is that just one in eight claimants is out of work, the remainder being employed, retired or registered disabled. Most of those who claim housing benefit do so to compensate for substandard wages and extortionate rents.
Yet, instead of addressing these problems, Mr Cameron has chosen to squeeze the already squeezed. Worse, in suggesting that the under-25s could return to their family homes, he was guilty of either extreme naivety or extreme malice. What of those from disturbed or violent backgrounds? Or those whose parents, having divorced or downsized, have no room to house them? Once again, the Prime Minister is making policy with little or no thought for the likely consequences.
On page 19, ConservativeHome’s editor, Tim Montgomerie, writes of the determination of the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, to refashion the welfare state “so that work always pays more than benefits”. But this noble aspiration rests on the assumption that the private sector will generate enough full-time jobs to meet the needs of Britain’s 2.6 million unemployed. So far, it has not. Too often, Mr Cameron’s allies have spoken as if it is merely a want of effort that prevents the jobless from finding work.
As Labour’s leading figures now acknowledge, the Brown boom disguised the millions of people consigned to a life on out-of-work benefits. But their lives will be improved by thoughtful policy, not political posturing. If Mr Cameron wants to be remembered as a reforming prime minister, he needs to offer more of the former and less of the latter.