Everything George Osborne does is notoriously drenched in political calculation. The Autumn Statement was no exception. The Chancellor did not have much room for manoeuvre, given the enduring parlous state of the public finances, which remains (or should remain) the biggest story of the day. Inevitably, he fell back on familiar devices.
Much of the hard work of deficit reduction will be done, as was widely advertised in advance, by cuts to the benefits bill. The main new development, also much anticipated, is the decision to limit the up-rating of benefits to 1 per cent. Since that is lower than inflation, it will feel like a cut. The Chancellor rather sneakily announced the move in a passage that compared the burden faced by hard-working folk with the leisurely life of people on benefits. He repeated his favourite homily of the dogged commuter heading off to work, eyeing the feckless neighbour, blinds drawn, sleeping away a life on the dole. It is a popular theme with the Conservative press and in focus groups.
The problem is that, bundled up with Osborne’s supposed idle scroungers, are people who have jobs, work hard, struggle to make ends meet on low wages and currently depend on some combination of tax credits, child benefit, housing benefit, council tax benefit. The freeze affects them as much as it does those who are out of work (who, in any case, might reasonably be thought of as unfortunate jobseekers instead of pilfering dossers). Once all the number-crunching is done it will be interesting to see if the raising of the personal allowance adequately compensates people on low incomes for the hit they are taking in frozen, cut or withdrawn benefits*.
But politically the most significant element of the freeze is surely the announcement that it will be contained in a separate “Welfare Uprating Bill.” That is plainly an attempt by the Chancellor to put the opposition in an awkward dilemma. Either Miliband appals his party and signs up to the government’s position, which is highly unlikely, or he opposes the freeze/cut – a move that the Tories and most of the press would present as a profligate defence of scrounging. It is the same manoeuvre that was deployed with some effect in votes on Osborne’s benefits cap earlier this year. As I’ve noted before, this ploy has diminishing returns for the Tories. It presumes that the public will stay boundlessly enthusiastic about welfare cuts, regardless of who the recipients are and regardless of the social consequences. That is a risky calculation given the vulnerability of the Conservative brand to charges of heartlessness.
It is worth noting also that the Liberal Democrats were hardly more relaxed about the benefit cap than Labour. Nick Clegg’s party demanded changes to the measure in the Lords and some rebelled against it. As the squeeze on low-earning households is likely to deepen over the next few months and as the Lib Dems feel the need to assert their credentials as the in-house conscience of the coalition, their position on the latest benefits freeze will become very interesting to watch.
There are bound to be Lib Dem MPs with an impulse to reject Osborne’s latest assault on benefit-claimants. Labour will be more than usually glad of their company in a Commons vote on an issue that probes one of the party’s great electoral vulnerabilities – the charge of excess welfare spending. Osborne has set a trap for the opposition with his Uprating Bill. He has also set a potential test for coalition unity.
*Update: The Resolution Foundation has crunched the numbers and the answer is “no, it doesn’t.”