Like Gordon Brown before him, George Osborne is a highly political chancellor. Whenever possible, his measures are designed to meet both economic and electoral imperatives. The Chancellor’s overarching project, as Benedict Brogan writes in today’s Telegraph, is to construct a Tory majority between now and polling day.
Again like Brown, Osborne is also his party’s chief electoral strategist and he does not share David Cameron’s instinctive fondness for coalition government. He is determined to see the return of one-party Conservative rule.
The best example of Osborne’s political and economic objectives working in tandem is the recently announced cap on benefits. The policy is not just a populist measure, designed to reassure the Daily Mail-reading classes, it is an act of supreme electoral engineering. The £500-a-week cap will trigger the largest population movement since the Second World War, as the poor are forced out of inner London and pushed into the suburbs, where rents are cheaper and living costs lower. The decision to charge new social housing tenants at least 80 per cent of the market rate will have a similar effect.
As a matter of social policy this is noteworthy enough, but, as I’ve argued before, for the Conservatives this is also a measure pregnant with political motives.
I noted then:
The Tories believe that the flight of poor, mainly Labour-voting families from inner London will allow hitherto unwinnable seats to fall into their lap. Many in the party are still aggrieved over their failure to win constituencies such as Westminster North (Joanne Cash) and Hammersmith (Shaun Bailey) – seats they felt were there for the taking.
Since I wrote those words, Conservative figures have openly acknowledged their political intentions. Bailey, the candidate defeated in west London, was recently heard to remark:
If you have a group of people that think that one government will advocate for them and one won’t, of course they’ll vote that way. And that’s the fight for the Conservatives ‘cos that’s why inner-city seats are so hard to win – because Labour has filled them with poor people.
One unnamed Conservative minister was quoted as describing the policy as “the Highland Clearances” – and not unfavourably.
Conservative strategists believe that their poor performance in seats with large numbers of ethnic-minority voters and/or large concentrations of social housing was one of the main reasons they failed to win the last election. The cap on benefits is part of the party’s supreme effort to overcome this defect.