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David Cameron goes softly, softly on child benefit

By Peter Hoskin
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CAMERONIf you feel like reading something about David Cameron that isn’t related to Europe, then how about the interview with him in the latest issue of the House Magazine? The problem with these interviews conducted by Paul Waugh and Sam Macrory is that they contain too many brilliant nuggets of information, dammit, to squeeze into one blog-post. I mean, for instance, the PM says that he likely to appoint more Tory peers before the summer; that he doesn’t think Nigel Farage should be involved in the next round of TV debates; and that the Conservatives’ message for 2015 will be “very sleeves rolled-up” — and that’s not even a tenth of it.

But the passages that tugged most forcefully at my optic nerves were those relating to tax and benefits. Once again, after recent speculation to the contrary, Mr Cameron denies that he will cut universal benefits for pensioners. Also, after recent speculation to the same, he says that he will legislate to recognise marriage in the tax system in this Parliament. And he also has this to say about the Government’s child benefit policy:

“Look. I'm not saying that taking away child benefit from people is easy. I don’t think people who earn £50000, £60000 are rich. You live in an expensive part of the country, you’ve got big costs to contend with, and you’re paying for the mortgage, you’re paying for the season ticket to get to work, you're meeting all the costs of bringing up children, you know, life is very expensive. I don’t say people on £50000, £60000 are rich but they are clearly better off than people on £20000 or £30000. So as I say, I don’t relish taking money from anyone and, you know, child benefit is a popular and successful benefit. It goes to the mum, you know, it’s a good slug of money, £20 for the first child, so I don’t relish taking it away from anyone and people I’m sure put it to good use, but, you know, to govern is to choose. We have to make difficult choices about the deficit and I think this was the right choice.”

This seems, to me, like a slightly different sort of salesmanship from David Cameron. Although he has said much of the above before, here the overall tone is more apologetic (“I don’t relish taking money from anyone”) than in the past. Compare it, for instance, with his jibe from last October that:

“I do not see why those on the Opposition Front Bench should go on collecting their child benefit when we are having to make so many other difficult decisions.”

Or his more recent explication of Conservative thinking, specifically to do with tax credits, but also applicable to child benefit:

“We have had to take difficult decisions about welfare — both in-work welfare and out-of-work welfare — so we have put a cap of 1% on all the working benefits, including the one that she has mentioned. Above all, I think that the right thing to do is to cut the taxes of people who are in work, rather than taking more in taxes and then redistributing it through tax credits. We on this side want to cut taxes on those who work. That is what we are doing and there will be more of it to come.”

He sounds less thrusting in his House Magazine interview, doesn’t he?

If this is indeed a conscious shift, you can certainly understand why Mr Cameron would make it. The child benefit policy has been a controversial one — not least with the centre-right media — and a little bit of tact probably won’t go amiss. The Conservatives will be eager not to alienate any of those “strivers” whose votes are up for grabs.

But this does still muddy the Conservatives’ wider message. Mix all the above quotes together, and it’s not entirely clear whether Mr Cameron’s fundamental position is. Does he believe that people on good incomes shouldn’t get child benefit? Or does he think that the cuts are a great sadness, necessary only in times of austerity? Would he further reduce people’s taxes once the deficit is contained? Or would he raise their benefit levels again? And so on.

None of these are mutually exclusive propositions, but sometimes it’s hard to know which way the Prime Minister veers. Indeed, it’s like I’ve said before: when it comes to universal benefits, his Government is often inconsistent.


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