During his pre-budget statement last week, the Chancellor George Osborne set out his intent to ensure that many benefits only rise by one per cent for the next three years.
This has been hailed by some on the right of politics as a fiscally responsible thing to do and a way of ensuring that benefits do not rise by more than many people’s wages have in the last few years. There have been others who have claimed that it is regressive and unfair to heap such a burden of real-terms cuts on those in society least able to afford it.
But what many think, regardless of what they consider the rights and wrongs of the decision, is that Osborne has set a clever trap for Eds Miliband and Balls to fall into. The theory goes that public opinion is on the side of those who want to “control” the benefits bill and that anyone arguing against this will essentially be putting themselves on the side of the “skivers” as opposed to the “strivers”.
As it happens it is beginning to look like Osborne has actually got this calculation wrong with 69 per cent of people in a recent poll saying they thought benefits should rise in line with inflation or higher. However, even without polling evidence, this move just feels wrong. The idea that the poorest in society should suffer a real terms cut in their income when many of those people are already close to the edge financially (witness the huge rise of payday lenders in recent years for example) sits very ill with me.
Part of the problem that was identified almost straight away by opponents of the measure is that 60 per cent of those affected by the cuts are actually in work. But really, that shouldn’t matter either. Trying to pitch those who are working against those who are not is the worst kind of politics. The vast majority of those out of work would love to have a job and although unemployment is falling it is still far too high. Many of those who Osborne seems to be painting as skivers currently have no choice.
He has made a serious political mistake here. Ten years ago Theresa May made a speech where she described how the Conservatives had the unwelcome mantle of “The Nasty Party”. This resonated because it rang true. David Cameron has spent years trying to detoxify his party with trips to the Arctic, endless speeches on the NHS and all sorts of other measures to attempt to reassure voters that they have changed.
With measures like this one per cent rise Osborne is retoxifying his party. He is punishing the poorest in society for an economic situation that they had nothing to do with creating and doing it in such a way as to try and pitch different sections of society against each other. He seems to be hoping that envy will win the day.
I hope and expect he is wrong about this. Not because opinion polls tell us so. But because I do not recognise the mean-spirited picture of Britain that he seems determined to paint. We’re better than that.
The trap he thought he had set has sprung shut on the Chancellor as he tried to tip-toe away from it.
He and his party will ultimately pay a heavy price for this.