THE things I do in the name of this blog. Just now George Osborne was filling the screen of my laptop, up close and scary. Well it is nearly Halloween.
I wanted to hear again what the Chancellor had said on the BBC news last night to the BBC’s new political editor, Laura Kuenssberg (who is proving to be a great appointment).
Osborne was being interviewed in the wake of the peers voting to delay tax credit cuts in order to protect those who would lose out.
What the Chancellor said, in precis, was that the people of Britain had voted for the Government in May and expected to see such policies pushed through.
There are a couple of problems with this. Yes, the Conservatives won the election fair and square. But a slim majority does not make you the voice of Britain. I’m fairly confident that voters did not go the ballot boxes in May thinking: ‘If there’s one thing I want to see from this election it is poor working people being clobbered.’
Less than two-thirds of the electorate bothered to vote at all – and shame on those who stayed away. Those who did put a cross next to the Tories did so for different reasons.
Simple reason: they preferred the Tories.
Muddied reason: they didn’t much like the Tories but thought Ed Miliband was a bit too, well, odd to get their vote – and anyway they trusted Labour even less than they trusted the Tories. And vote Lib-Dem? Oh do come off it.
Whatever the motivation, no one voted for cuts in tax credits because that wasn’t on the manifesto. Not only that, but David Cameron and his ally Michael Gove went on record as saying such cuts wouldn’t happen. So for Osborne to claim that he is only doing what the people of Britain want is stretching credibility bubble-gum thin. And that sticky bubble has just popped all over his face.
Cameron and Osborne lead a government with a small majority but a high degree of arrogance. Before that they shared power with the ill-fated Lib-Dems – and still swaggered about with arrogance. Now there is no one within government to tell them to pipe down.
Following this rebuff from the Lords, Cameron is reported to be determined to set limits on the power of the Upper House with a “rapid review” to ensure that the House of Commons always has supremacy on financial matters. The prime minister accused the Lords of breaking a constitutional convention.
As there is an anti-government majority in the Lords, this sort of clash will happen again. And it does need to be resolved, but thoughtfully and carefully – not with a spiteful and intemperate quick fix. Because in parliamentary terms, you can’t get dodgier than a quick-fix fix-up.
As the tax credit cuts will hit the needy but employed, piling the pain on the working poor, it could be argued that the Lords acted compassionately by asking for a delay.
The strange thing is that at heart Cameron and Osborne are right: it is mad to subsidise low-paid workers with a tax credit. In effect this is a government subsidy on low wages and encourages companies to keep pay low. The trouble is, the proposals as they stand take money away from the working poor without wages being raised enough to compensate.
Osborne says he has listened and will consider what to do now. Expect some fleet footwork in next month’s mini-budget – a conjuring flourish and a tattered rabbit from an old hat. Whether or not anything will have truly changed will be hard to say.
The former Tory Minister David Willetts, who now heads the Resolution Foundation, warned in The Observer on Sunday that cuts to tax credits were an example of the government creating a “country for older generations” while hitting the young and their families.
Willetts warns that the protection afforded to pensioners at the expense of young people were unfair and risked breaking what he called the “social contract” between generations.
He is right about this. They didn’t used to call him “Two Brains” for nothing, you know.