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Is David Cameron coming round to the idea of further universal benefit cuts?

By Peter Hoskin
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Flicking through this morning’s papers, it's clearer that the government is being pressured from two directions over child benefit. There are those regard the cuts for higher income earners as a “penalty on aspiration”, and who might be emboldened by reports that the policy could run into legal difficulties. And there are those who see the cuts as little more than a start — as I wrote yesterday, and as Rachel Sylvester also suggests in today’s Times (£) — to be built on by reductions in other universal benefits.

So which way, if any, is the government likely to budge? Judging by the polling and supporting quotes pushed out by the Treasury yesterday, it will take a lot to get George Osborne to drop the policy — and I expect that goes doubly so now that explanatory letters have been dispatched to those who will be affected. But, as we know, the government is also reluctant to move against other universal benefits. So most signs point to them ploughing on as is, on the difficult middle ground.

Or do they? Rachel Sylvester’s column also contains this noteworthy snippet:

“According to one Tory strategist, it’s critical that Mr Cameron does not let himself be boxed in in 2015, as he was in 2010, because the Conservatives will almost certainly have to remove benefits from some older people if they win power. ‘Everybody wants to make sure retired people are treated properly but in the context of deficit reduction with tough things going on they have done pretty well so far,’ he says. ‘Cameron understands that the likelihood is that in the next Parliament we will have to look at this, so knows he needs to leave his options open.’”

If it’s true that the Tory leadership is considering trimming back the universal benefit bill, albeit after the next election, then that’s both fiscal and moral progress. But we shouldn’t get too excited just yet. I suspect much will depend on how these child benefit cuts are implemented: if the policy goes down messily — as it looks like if might — then Downing Street could soon get nervy again. This is why what’s happening now is so important.


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