One of the Conservatives’ most striking manifesto commitments ahead of the election was to make £12bn worth of cuts to welfare spending by 2017/18.
But they didn’t specify where precisely the axe would fall, and were expecting to water these cuts down anyway as part of doing another deal with the Lib Dems to form a government.
Their majority left them in a difficult position of having to deliver the full cuts programme they’d promised. According to one Tory source, Iain Duncan Smith was in no mood for celebrating on the first day back in parliament after the Tories’ election win, because he knew how difficult it would be to find £12bn worth of cuts in the welfare budget.
But George Osborne will announce in the Budget a slower pace for these cuts: £8bn by 2017/8 and a further £4bn by 2018/9.
This is a classic Osborne manoeuvre. Bad cop/steady cop. Or, more accurately, austere cop/mildly less austere cop. He did the same thing last parliament. He had promised in 2010 to eliminate the deficit by 2015/16, but was forced to stretch this out over a longer period (he now plans to “balance the books” by 2018/19).
The Tories will champion this as a pragmatic, flexible approach. But then why promise to make a load of non-specific cuts to an arbitrary deadline in the first place? Perversely, the Chancellor appears to benefit politically from his image as axe-wielding, even if he has to downgrade to a smaller axe when it comes for the chop.