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The Reason Why Cameron Steered Clear Of This Week’s Welfare Scrap

Last Updated: Friday, April 5th, 2013

Tim Montgomerie suggested earlier this week that David Cameron should lead from the front on welfare reform – that he should, perhaps, visit a family in smaller accommodation than they need, in order to make the point that housing benefit shouldn’t support other people in larger accommodation than they need.

Instead, this week’s leading from the front was done by Cameron’s closest senior political friend and ally, George Osborne.  The Chancellor made a carefully-staged, tough-but-temperate speech on welfare reform, before making an equally deliberately-crafted intervention in the raging debate about Mick Philpott and welfare.

I believe that the Osborne manoeuvre demonstrates that Cameron won’t take Tim’s advice, and that the way in which they divided the Government’s work this week between them shows why.  On the same day that Osborne made his remarks about Philpott, Cameron was in Scotland being winched aboard Trident-carrying HMS Victorious.

If you compare the two operations – one grand, grave, Prime Ministerial and would-be-unifying (though with a solid party political purpose); the other partisan, aggressive, and divisive (though with a serious point), it won’t take you long to work out what the two men at the top of the Conservative Party are up to.

Despite the stubborn persistence of the deficit, the Chancellor is attempting to roll back what he sees as the client welfare state that Gordon Brown built – for example, by scaling back the child tax credit.  For this reason, he has a strategic interest in welfare reform, and his eye alighted on housing benefit as ripe for change as soon as he took office.

Perhaps Osborne is interested in Brown because the two men are in one sense curiously alike.  Like Brown, the Chancellor is a sharp-edged operator who loves to draw dividing lines, with the aim of putting his opponents on the wrong side of it.  His words about Philpott were crafted to lure Labour into the trap of seeming to defend welfare as it is.

Osborne is a better operator than his critics claim (his inheritance tax and stamp duty cut gambit in 2007 helped to halt a general election that Brown might well have won), and a worse one than his fan club believes (consider the 2012 budget).  But his assault this week went according to plan, and is a reminder that he’s still a formidable figure.

Indeed, playing Bad Cop rather suits him, since he doesn’t have Cameron’s suave presentational skills.  The Prime Minister’s visit to Scotland was a reminder that he will deploy them to float above the fray, or try to – to be, in so far as a politician can be, above party politics: an emollient and soothing figure.

This explains why Cameron will steer as clear as possible of personal identification with the sharper end of welfare reform.  (Labour MPs queue up each week at Prime Minister’s Questions to ask when he will visit a food bank.)  Warning in authoritative but vague terms that Britain needs Trident is more his style and scene.

I believe that Cameron should follow up the aspiration theme of his two most recent party conference speeches by visiting academies and free schools, new housing projects, employment programmes – anything related to opportunity, social mobility and getting on.  But whether he does or doesn’t, he will be careful when welfare’s concerned.

The main reason why the two men have chosen the roles they are acting out isn’t merely one of temperament.  This week has told us much about how the next election will be fought.  Osborne isn’t Party Chairman.  And he isn’t Lynton Crosby, the new election supremo.  But he will be at the forefront of the party political fight – especially on welfare.

Cameron, in the meanwhile, will try to maintain as much distance as he can from its rougher end.  The reason?  Because he almost certainly can’t win a majority.  He doesn’t just want to stay above the fray because it suits him.  He wants to do so because he wants to be in a position to re-form the Coalition if he next Parliament is hung.  And that means being the kind of irenic politician that the Liberal Democrats are willing to work with.

By Paul Goodman


Lord Carey: Lord Bates is wrong. I’m right to worry about the Government: “Lord Bates suggests that I’m accusing the government of ‘Herod-like persecution’.  Not at all. I’m suggesting that the coalition is following a trajectory set by previous governments which in spite of their warm words, they have done nothing to arrest. Take the support of the Prime Minister for the right of Christians to wear the cross, I have never heard a satisfactory explanation of why lawyers employed by the coalition argued against this right in the European Court of Human Rights? I am surely not alone in wanting to see some correspondence between a government’s words and actions?” Read more:

David Skelton: Why I’m moving on – to help meet the Conservatives’ northern challenge: “If the Tories don’t face up to this challenge and broaden their appeal, they will face the prospect of never being able to have a sustainable period of majority government again. For the Conservatives, the challenge is that urgent and that important – they can either focus on building a lasting and broad based electoral coalition, reaching out to people who remain suspicious of the Tories, or they can become increasingly marginal political players in great swathes of the country. That’s why I’m moving on from Policy Exchange to help set up a group dedicated to broadening the appeal of the Conservative Party. 42 per cent of the public have said that they would never vote Tory and the Conservatives have to work hard to consider why this is the case and to break down the barriers that get in the way of people giving the Tories a hearing.” Read more:

Paul Goodman: When it comes to Attack Dogs, Osborne’s still a Big Beast: “Osborne can be criticised for being a pupil of Brown in other ways.  On one count, the deficit is as high as ever.  The budget had some good measures, such as the NIC and corporation tax cuts, but its big idea – subsidising housing – was a cry of intellectual exhaustion.  His plans were predicated on robust recovery by now, and it hasn’t come.  But his speech yesterday was a reminder that when it comes to attack dogs, the Chancellor’s still a big beast.  His aim was to throw Labour on the defensive, exacerbate the pressure on Ed Balls from Labour’s backbenches, and draw a dividing line over an issue on which voters are not on Ed Miliband’s side.  David Cameron, Good Cop, stayed out of yesterday’s fracas.  Osborne, Bad Cop, waded into action.  That Mockney accent apart, the role suits him.” Read more:

Lord Ashcroft: Words matter. Don’t choose them too carefully.: “There are two problems with the search for magic words – or the abracadabra theory of political communication. The first is that the listener, the voter, does not separate the words from whoever it is that is saying them. Everything a politician or party says is heard in the context of what the audience already thinks of them. Even if a phrase or argument works in the abstract, it can be unbelievable or at least ineffective when delivered by someone who cannot, in the ears of the listener, sound plausible while saying it. The Conservatives might criticise Labour’s record on the NHS, and Labour might complain about the rising national debt, and both might have good points to make – but for either to be taken seriously on those respective subjects needs more application than simply arranging their syllables in the right order.” Read more:

Tim Montgomerie: Today is ConservativeHome’s eighth birthday: “Our recipe is summarised in the eleven shields that crown the site. We need to be a party that doesn’t sit narrowly on the so-called centre ground or the so-called Right. We must be a party of the common ground, adopting ‘the politics of and’. Tough on crime AND committed to rehabilitation of offenders. Committed to strict border control AND generous anti-poverty programmes in the developing world. Investors in our armed forces AND opposed to the sale of arms to despotic regimes. Eurosceptic AND global traders. Generous to the genuinely needy AND demanding of people who should be standing on their own two feet.” Read more:

Matthew Sinclair: The three elements of good climate policy: “Good climate policy has three elements: resilience, as free and prosperous societies will cope best with whatever the natural world throws at them; adaptation, as climate will always change and we will need to roll with the punches; and promoting research and development which can lower the price of cutting emissions. All that fits within the established role of government. It does not require a utopian faith in supranational institutions. It will survive a lot of mistakes as each grant or prize doesn’t need to be worth billions so the stakes are relatively low on each roll of the dice. I would submit that it is both the right climate policy and definitely the right climate policy for an oikophile conservative.” Read more:

Lord Bates: George Carey should worry a little bit more about global poverty and a little less about David Cameron: “It is perhaps more revealing of the private prejudice of Lord Carey that he makes absolutely no mention of the Prime Minister’s policies which will see overseas aid levels reach 0.7% under this government at a time of recession. No mention of the 12 million children vaccinated last year against killer diseases; the 2.7 million mothers and children prevented from going hungry and five million children given access to education for the first time. I suppose we would be told that God is much more concerned about a British Airway’s employee being able to wear a piece of jewellery or “more shockingly” the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft being turned into a multi-faith prayer room than the fact that 29,000 children under five die every day from preventable disease or malnutrition.” Read more:


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