Cameron’s latest foray into populism shows signs of desperation. With IDS’ universal credit the fulcrum of the new welfare system, but now well behind schedule and likely not to be completely rolled out till 2017, Cameron fires off another scatter-gun splurge of anti-welfare pellets, before he or anyone else knows the costs or practicality of the huge upheaval already making its way slowly down the track over the next 5 years. So why is he pushing so prematurely at a further farrago of disconnected and reckless cuts? Answering that gives an inkling into how far things have now got out of control at No.10.
It could be to throw some easy meat to his ever more restive and demanding Tory backwoodsmen, bashing the LibDems for good measure, and tapping into a rich vein of right-wing Daily Mail visceral antipathy to anything to do with the welfare system. The fact that he was aiming indiscriminately at 17 different, unrelated targets made it all the more clear that this was less a policy exercise than a wild drive-by shooting.
Maybe he thought this intemperate attack on the bottom rungs would inveigle a listless and passive Labour Party into acquiescence, or even try to force Labour on to the defensive when he himself had been caught out and deeply embarrassed by the tax dodging stories including involving some of his own cheerleaders. Whichever, the Labour Party should vigorously spurn this melange of populist prejudices as the ill-thought-out, cheap popularity-seeking splurge of desperation it is.
Everything he can think of has been thrown hurriedly into this pot-pourri. It even included regionalised benefits, lower in poorer areas. But in that case how about lower national insurance contributions and lower taxes to match, and where do you draw the lines between regions without the absurdity of people paying different rates of taxes on either side of the same road? This daft idea was then quickly dropped, not because it would be demonstrably unfair and impractical, but because northern Tory MPs were worried about the effects on their constituents at the next election.
No, the reason for this amalgam of welfare-baiting – removing housing benefit from under-25s, limiting benefits for families with 3 or more children, linking benefits to average earnings (because of real pay cuts, until of course earnings return to exceed prices when the link with prices will be restored), ending some benefits after a short period, and paying more benefits in kind – is that Osborne’s strategy of cutting the deficit is failing so badly, and IDS’ universal benefit is now expected to cost more than the present system, so that the Treasury is now demanding another £10bn in cuts. Who better to provide it than the poorest, so that the multi-millionaires who’ve just made an extra £14,000 a week out of the Budget can continue to sleep undisturbed?