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How George Osborne learned to relax and start loving Universal Credit

The Chancellor is using the reform as a trojan horse for benefit cuts, says Emily Thornberry. 

Remember Universal Credit? You know, “the most radical overhaul of our welfare system since its inception”? The “once in a generation reform” that was going to “improve the lives of millions”?

Yes, some truly ridiculous things have been said about Universal Credit over the years, mostly by Tory ministers. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, my predecessor Stephen Timms once pointed out, with admirable restraint, that the government was “in danger of overselling the benefits of Universal Credit.

I cannot think of a more egregious example in recent years of a policy which promised so much and delivered so little. 

It isn’t just the endless delays, computer crashes, “resets” and inter-departmental squabbling that have conspired to bring about the failure of this flagship Tory welfare reform.

Far more important is the fact that, almost without being noticed, the Tories have been hacking away at Universal Credit to the point where become almost unrecognisable.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to fathom. The comprehensive mauling the programme received following the general election had the Chancellor’s grubby fingerprints all over it.

For all the flaws in its implementation, Universal Credit was actually a perfectly good idea, at least in theory. By bringing a number of benefits and tax credits together into a single monthly payment, which was available to those in work as well as out and would be gradually withdrawn as earnings increased, the government was working to the fundamental principle that work should always pay – and be seen to pay.

This principle, which used to be shared by all parties, was even built into the design of Universal Credit. This worked by setting a minimum amount that each household could earn – a “work allowance” – before their benefits would start to be taken away.

That sounded perfectly sensible, and it was.

But last summer Universal Credit ran into serious trouble, as George Osborne was flailing around in search of a spare £12 billion. That, of course, was the amount that the Tories had promised to save from the welfare budget before the election, despite the fact that none of them seemed ever to have got as far as thinking about where they might actually find it.

The truth is that benefits system has never been as generous as the deplorable stereotypes of right wing tabloids and shows like Benefits Street tend to suggest. So in terms of the sheer scale of the cuts the Government was proposing, there just weren’t that many places within the welfare budget to look. Tax credits was one – and we all know how that turned out – and Universal Credit was the other.

But while tax credits threatened to ignite a political row approaching the scale of Thatcher’s infamous poll tax, Osborne himself has pointed out that he managed to make equivalent cuts to Universal Credit, saving around £3 billion, just a few weeks later.

He did this by exploiting an obscure loophole in parliamentary procedure, which Governments sometimes use to pass controversial legislation without the need for a vote, almost no-one outside Westminster batted an eyelid.  

Shortly after that, Iain Duncan Smith announced that the government is now tripping over itself to see that Universal Credit is rolled out nationally from April next year That’s just around the time, remember, that those now-abandoned cuts to tax credits had been due to kick in.

This is of course no coincidence. It is becoming increasingly clear that cutting tax credits and cutting Universal Credit is effectively the same thing. They hit the same families in the same way – the only difference is in the timing.

Following the government’s Spending Review in November, a leading think tank pointed out that for the first time, “Universal Credit is now squarely a welfare reform which saves money”. And that money has to come from somewhere.

According to the IFS, that somewhere is the pockets of 2.6 million low-income working households, who stand to lose an average of £1,600 a year with the transition to Universal Credit.

The government insists that most of this process will be complete by the time of the next election. And while there may yet be further delays, that seems far less likely now that the Chancellor is a convert to the cause.

Whenever Universal Credit does arrive, one thing’s for certain – it won’t be the same Universal Credit we were promised back when it was introduced with all that high-falutin rhetoric.  

Emily Thornberry is MP for Islington South & Finsbury and shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.