One of the big things to come from this year’s budget (other than the sugar tax and endless speculation about what Osborne is up to and whether it will work or not) was the cuts to disability benefits. What’s interesting about for me about the debate on the right is that cuts to disability benefits are clearly not a simple right-left issue like a lot of things these days – there seems to be a huge split inside conservative circles about what the correct approach to this should be.
Ian Birrell, former Cameron speechwriter and contributing editor to the Mail on Sunday and hardly one’s idea of a flowery Corbynite, wrote in the Telegraph this morning about the cuts:
“Few sensible people dispute the need to control government spending, reform flawed benefits and attack dependency culture. But as even Conservative critics point out, this latest cut hits the wrong people for the wrong reasons. It is also woeful politics, reviving tedious cries of “heartless Tories” and ruining those claims of compassionate conservatism.”
The rest of the article is equally scathing of Osborne’s cuts. Yet the editorial view in the very same newspaper asks:
“Why are so many people considered disabled? Is it either inevitable or desirable for the sums spent on disability to rise unceasingly? More broadly, what limit should be put on welfare spending? George Osborne rightly attempted in 2014 to impose such a cap on himself, but has since breached it, partly by backing down on plans to reduce tax credits.
“Welfare is often the subject of a political ratchet: money, once given, is hard to take back. Recent payments such as winter fuel payments (created in 1997) and tax credits (1999) are treated by some as untouchable cornerstones of the 1948 welfare state. And some in the welfare lobby aggressively impugn the motives and morality of those who question this ever-rising spending.”
It is one of those issues that you can see dividing conservatives (and Conservatives) for years to come. For it isn’t just about disability benefits, but all benefits and indeed the role of the state itself. Is it there to help ameliorate inequality and cover things like the problems the disabled face in life, or is it simply not? While there are many complexities to this issue, at its heart lies a simple yes or no answer.
It’s easy to make a conservative case for why disability cuts at present levels are necessary, and Ian Birrell did it very well this morning, so I will simply summarise the viewpoint: if you want to keep society ticking along, the government must be willing to intervene to ensure those with the most problems can survive and even thrive. This is the essence of One Nation conservatism. But for those who think that any government meddling in anyone’s lives, even if they ask directly for such meddling, is a wrong to be eliminated, this view has no value whatsoever (as the Telegraph View demonstrates).
George Osborne was the hero of the Conservative Party not so long ago because he brilliantly straddled a line between the wets and the Thatcherites. Now, whether it is because the EU referendum has opened up fault lines that lay dormant or some other factor, he has become too wet for the Thatcherites and too libertarian for the One Nation crowd. I’m sure the chancellor is as surprised as anyone by how quickly this has happened.