Latest posts by Alex Wickham (see all)
- Self-proclaimed “moderate” Tories are colluding with Labour to undermine the Right - February 10, 2014
- Where would we be now if Tory rebels hadn’t blocked Lords reform? - February 3, 2014
- How François Hollande changed but Ed Miliband stayed the same - January 27, 2014
David Cameron told last week’s Spectator that he has a “little black book” of Conservative policies he has been unable to implement because of the Liberal Democrats. The Prime Minister is doing his best to convince wavering Tory voters, not to mention his own backbenchers, that the Lib Dems have put a brake on sound conservative policies that only a Tory majority can deliver.
“I think we could go further on welfare reform, to sharpen work incentives and get more people out of poverty. I can see clearly now what needs to be done in terms of our relationship with Europe, when it comes to building a pro-enterprise economy how we go further and faster on backing entrepreneurship, cutting business taxes, getting our economy moving.”
This actually sounds pretty good.
A manifesto pledging a much tougher stance on welfare, tax cuts and an European Union (EU) referendum is not an unattractive offer at all. Cameron has no problem with the rhetoric, with identifying what voters on the right want. The problem is it isn’t quite true that the Lib Dems are the ones putting a brake on right-wing policies in Coalition. Often, it is Cameron himself.
Yesterday’s Mail on Sunday splashed on the “No. 10 plan to cap benefit at two children”. Proposed by Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi – famous for charging the taxpayer to keep his horses warm, but perhaps more importantly a member of the PM’s policy board – the idea is tough but fair.
Child benefit would be limited to a family’s first two children. Families would lose their entitlement to child tax credit for any more than two kids. Up to £5 billion would be saved per year. Zahawi explains his reasoning:
“Welfare will always be there to help them take responsible decisions about work and family. In return, they can no longer assume the taxpayer has a bottomless purse. Capping welfare by family size would save billions and help the next generation think more carefully about their relationship with the welfare state. And it would restore the original bargain made between citizens and state: a safety net in return for personal responsibility.”
This makes sense. Population demographics mean that from now on governments of any colour will have to make unpopular decisions about how the relationship between the state and pensioners, the young, those using the National Health Service, those on benefits.
From a perspective of social justice, it does seem unfair that two parents working full-time with two children make a decision not to have a third because they cannot afford it, while their taxes contribute to the child benefit of workless families on their third, fourth or fifth child.
Within hours of Zahawi announcing his policy, Number 10 had said no. Paul Waugh quotes a Downing Street source as all but ruling it out completely: “This is not government policy and is not supported by the PM”.
Nick Clegg’s opposition to the idea goes without saying, yet this is Cameron stepping in. It is easy for the Tory side of government to blame their Lib Dem counterparts when they are unable to push policies through. Many senior Tories are genuine when they say this. Think of George Osborne’s suggestion that the benefit cap could be cut further under a Tory government, a sensible suggestion that the Lib Dems would veto, and that surely all Tories would support.
Yet often throughout the three and a half years of Coalition it has not been the Lib Dems putting a brake on such policies, but the PM himself. Cameron talks about his little black book of policies the Lib Dems have blocked. I wonder if he also has a little yellow book of policies he has been able to tell his backbenchers were only blocked because of the Lib Dems, but secretly he was rather pleased to have an excuse to say no to.