Harriet Harman’s well-crafted response to the Queen’s Speech will enhance her reputation as one of Labour’s finest parliamentarians. David Cameron and herself, she declared, had one thing in common: “We’re both, by our own admission, interim leaders”. Of the SNP’s attempt to occupy Dennis Skinner’s seat, she warned: “The lion might be roaring in Scotland but don’t mess with the Beast of Bolsover”. Ayesha Hazarika, Harman’s long-standing aide and a former stand-up comedian, is likely to have had a hand in those lines.
Owing to her status as acting leader, there was little notable political content in Harman’s address. She warned of “a fragile economy, a fragile constitution and sadly, fragile public services too” and repeated the traditional mantra that “you cannot trust the Tories on the NHS” (“You’ll see,” she said in response to Conservative jeers).
But Harman broke new ground when she announced that Labour was “sympathetic” to the government’s plan to reduce the household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000. That Harman felt it necessary to make this immediately clear shows how George Osborne has succeeded in shifting the terms of debate on welfare – the centre ground has moved. Labour has resolved that it cannot afford to oppose such a measure on moral grounds – any objections must be purely pragmatic. In his subsequent speech, Cameron seized on Harman’s words, declaring that if Labour believed in “aspiration” (as its leadership candidates continually proclaim) it would support his plan to lower the cap and use the savings to fund apprenticeships.
Should the party vote with the Conservatives it will face the opposition of the SNP (which has vowed to resist all of the Tories’ welfare cuts) and a significant number of its own backbenchers. But Harman did warn that the government would have to ensure that a lower cap “doesn’t put children into poverty, increase homelessness, or end up costing more than it saves”. She said that this could be achieved by making sure that “The jobs are there for people to move into; the childcare is there, particularly for lone parents; and there are adequate funds for discretionary housing payments.” Should the government refuse to meet these conditions it will be hard for Labour to justify supporting the measure. The danger, as in the case of the previous benefit cap vote, is that it ends up in a deadly halfway house: neither fully supporting nor fully opposing welfare cuts – and alienating all at once.