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Osborne is unafraid of the "nasty party" label. Is he right?

The Chancellor works on the assumption that voters have a boundless appetite for ever tighter welfare limits.

New Statesman
George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on August 11, 2011 (Getty Images)

Is there a limit to how hard the coalition can be on people who depend on unemployment benefit? George Osborne clearly calculates that there isn't. Among the announcements in today’s spending review was a further tightening of the conditions to be imposed on people signing on when they lose their jobs. They are:

Introducing upfront work search, requiring all claimants to prepare for work and search for jobs right from the start of their claim;

Introducing weekly rather than fortnightly visits to Jobcentres for half of all jobseekers;

Requiring all unemployed claimants, and those earning less than the Government expects them to, to wait seven days before becoming eligible for financial support;

 Requiring all claimants who are subject to conditionality to verify their claim every year;

 Requiring all claimants whose poor spoken English is a barrier to work to improve their  English language skills; and

 Requiring lone parents who are not working to prepare for work once the youngest child turns three.

According to the Treasury, this will save the taxpayer £350m per year. (See page 7 here.) Hidden in that dry bureaucratic language are measures whose net effect will be to increase the likelihood of people with no money finding themselves without help.

Especially harsh is the obligation to wait seven days before making a claim. This, said the Chancellor, was to make sure people start their job search immediately and don’t just roll up to a Job Centre on day one of their unemployment. What they are expected to do on days 2-6 if their job search isn’t immediately successful isn’t explained.

Besides, the presumption here is that the DWP is a well-oiled machine that efficiently processes benefit claims and disburses money like some social action ATM. That plainly isn’t the case, as anyone who has claimed benefits - or even just met someone who has claimed benefits - would know. The main effect of introducing an arbitrary delay in eligibility will be a hike in rent arrears and a surge in visits to loan sharks.

The stipulation that non-English speakers improve their language skills before claiming is a pretty crude device to show that the government doesn’t like paying benefits to immigrants. How that will be assessed should be interesting to watch. Maybe a private sector provider could be awarded a contract to hurl difficult spellings at people with funny sounding names? The evidence shows that immigrants are proportionately less likely than other sections of the population to claim benefits but that isn’t really the point. It doesn’t take a huge leap of the political imagination to see why the Chancellor came up with this particular wheeze. It is a dash of Ukip-lite in the spending review.

Overall the welfare debate in Britain has become dismal and sterile. Supporters of the Chancellor will today say there is nothing inherently unjust about the new measures – they simply ask that people make the appropriate effort to find work before taking cash from the taxpayer. The left will point out that every increase in “conditionality” amounts to a new hole in the safety net through which vulnerable people fall, leading to deeper poverty, social problems and  – if you want to be all utilitarian about it – higher costs to the taxpayer in the long run.

The opposition will denounce the measures and then refuse to say whether or not it would reverse them. The Tories will jeer. Labour will tie itself in little angsty knots trying to work out whether it is supposed to be channeling the anger of voters against a faulty benefits system it generally failed to reform during 13 years in power or debunking welfare myths and reversing prejudices against benefit claimants.

Immigrants, the unemployed and single mums will drop another rung down the social hierarchy as the supposed authors of their own immiseration. I have asked very well-placed Tories if they are ever worried that at some point this strategy – mining ever deeper into people’s resentment of the way their neighbours appear to game the benefits system  - will backfire. Is there a compassion threshold beyond which voters will recoil from the harsh language and the social consequences of a brutal welfare settlement. (The myth that there is anything generous about the UK’s provision is well addressed here.) The answer from Treasury sources is “no”. I have been told by one senior  advisor that, having looked at opinion polls, the Chancellor has concluded that he would struggle to meet the public’s appetite for welfare crackdowns. Some Conservatives are more cautious, insisting that the party has to be very careful about the language it uses in this context – no explicit references to “scroungers”. “More in sorrow than in anger” is the guidance from one Tory strategist on the tone MPs should take when talking about benefit cuts.

Still, I find it hard to believe that the Tory party, given the whole legacy of brand toxicity from the 1980s and 1990s – the “nasty party” image – won’t eventually suffer some kind of backlash in connection with this stuff. As I’ve written before, voters are capable of holding two contradictory thoughts in their heads at the same time: first, yes we wanted you to cut the benefits bill but, second, in so doing you have reinforced every suspicion we had that you are mean at heart.

Maybe Osborne is right. Perhaps there is no bottom – the axe can go ever deeper, the sanctions can get tougher, the dividing lines with Labour can grow wider. Cracking down on welfare could be the political gift that keeps on giving for the Tories. But there are also swing voters who struggle to put their cross in the Conservative box on polling day because they feel that, ultimately, it is a party that has it in for foreigners, single mums, disabled people, the sick, the poor. Today the Chancellor didn’t do much to persuade them otherwise.