Cameron setting out his stall for next general election

 

Following difficult months, David Cameron yesterday promised radical welfare reform, writes MARK HENNESSY

STANDING IN a shopping centre in Kent yesterday, prime minister David Cameron set off a series of political hares that are already been viewed as marking the opening of the campaign for the next British general election, which is three years away.

Housing benefits could be eliminated for under-25s; welfare payments could be linked to slow-moving wage rises, rather than tied to inflation; and higher-earners living in council flats could be forced to quit.

Welfare could be cut off after two years, or sometime thereafter, if the jobless fail to show signs of good faith that they are looking for work, he said, while child benefits could be restricted to three children.

If implemented, these changes, along with others mooted in his speech and measures already implemented, would amount to the biggest shake-up of welfare in a generation. The question is how many of them will be implemented.

He started off his speech with the customary note struck by a politician when he knows that the majority of his audience privately agrees with him, but where he wishes to portray himself as bravely battling against the tide of consensus.

“Raising big questions on welfare, as I have today – it might not win the government support. Frankly, a lot of it might rub people up the wrong way,” said Cameron, who has suffered some of his most difficult months in office.

Lobby groups condemned the ideas: the Catholic Church said it was “extremely concerned”. For now, Cameron will not care. He will have to do so only if his proposals ignite the belief, among those who will hope never to have to qualify for benefits, that the Tory “nasty party” is back.

Conservative MPs have become restive, particularly after the botched budget in March, while chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne, who once wore the garb of a great political strategist, has been defrocked, temporarily at any rate.

The speech was about getting back onside with his MPs and with his party supporters, many of whom have never been convinced that he wants single-party rule badly enough, or even that he is a true Conservative.

The speech was replete with dog-whistles: “Take a couple living outside London. He’s a hospital porter, She’s a care-worker. They’re both working full-time and together they take home £24,000 after tax.

“They’d love to start having children – and they know they’d get some help from the state if they did so, but with the mortgage and the bills to pay, they feel they should keep saving up for a few more years.

“But the couple down the road, who have four children, haven’t worked for a number of years. Each week they get £112 in income support, £61 in child benefit, £217 in tax credits and £141 in housing benefit – more than £27,000 a year.

“Even after the £26,000 benefit cap is introduced, they’ll still take home more than their neighbours who go out to work every day. Can we really say that’s fair?” said Mr Cameron, certain that few in work would disagree.

The speech was peppered with other examples – the 19-year-old who studies, becomes a receptionist and stays living with mum and dad, for instance, while a feckless neighbour of the same age signs on, gets housing benefits and then lives with mates.

Even the choice of venue – the Bluewater shopping centre was deemed significant, drawing the kinds of middle-income earners whose support Cameron and the Conservatives must secure if they are to have a chance of forming a government on their own in 2015.

Under the Conservatives’ game plan, they will be able to portray themselves as radical while the Liberal Democrats and Labour get blamed for supporting the feckless when they criticise significant elements of Cameron’s ideas as unworkable.

Labour knows the dangers, too. Last evening they danced around the speech’s main points, preferring to ridicule Cameron because one expected reference to regionalising welfare benefits did not make the final cut.

The message to voters is clear: Conservatives want to keep the welfare state but its benefits should be conditional and more demanding. The underlying message, Cameron must hope, is also clear: such change will come only with majority Tory rule.