Brian Wilson: George Osborne fails to learn from mistakes

It's in the bag - but George Osborne's plans to cut disability benefits may not be after all, with Tory MPs angered. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
It's in the bag - but George Osborne's plans to cut disability benefits may not be after all, with Tory MPs angered. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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EVEN the Chancellor’s own backbenchers are up in arms over his latest ploy to cut disabled benefits, writes Brian Wilson

There is a venerable tradition of Budgets being cheered to the rafters on the day of delivery, regardless of content. Order papers are waved, backs are slapped and the all-round genius of the Chancellor is sound-bitten by a queue of loyal backbenchers.

Then, layer by layer, the gloss comes off. Small print is read. Sums are done and matters turn out to be not quite what they seemed. Normally, this part of the ritual does not greatly inconvenience the Chancellor. Having basked in his starring role, he leaves the detail of delivery to lesser mortals – not least the Whips.

That was in the past. George Osborne wishes to be a reforming Chancellor and he is certainly changing the way Budgets are received. For the second year, he has delivered such an enormous bloomer that there is no need to delay scepticism and equally little chance that the centre-piece of his masterplan will pass into law.

To achieve this feat once is careless. To walk into the same trap again is extraordinary. His previous big idea was to inflict wildly disproportionate cuts on low income working households by tampering with Tax Credits. You only had to watch the tear-stained interviews with prospective victims to be pretty sure it would not be delivered.

In the wake of his forced retreat on Tax Credits, there was widespread head-shaking about how he ever got himself into that position. The consensus was that it resulted from being isolated from “the real world” and failing to understand the implications of what he was doing. If only he would listen more to his backbenchers, was the cry.

So what does he come up with this year but a £4.3 billion cut to aids and accessories for disabled people. One wonders how many backbenchers he ran that one past. It was quickly apparent that a decent number of Tory MPs were horrified and I reckon the impressive Sarah Wollaston, a genuine medical doctor who chairs the House of Commons select committee on health, put matters beyond doubt yesterday.

In calm and rational terms, she told the BBC’s World at One it was impossible to sell tax cuts for the better-off, who weren’t even clamouring for them, while taking way £3,500 a year from 370,000 disabled people. Asked if she would support a Labour amendment to defeat the measure, she said there would be no need because (by implication) Tory backbenchers would kill it off before it got that far. That had the ring of truth.

The Tories’ problem, and the country’s safeguard, is that they don’t have a big majority and there does seem to be an appetite for resisting inhumane measures that you wouldn’t have found in Thatcher’s time. Nobody seems to have drawn this difficulty to Osborne’s attention. Perhaps some of his backbenchers do not fancy facing a campaign led by highly credible people representing sufferers from debilitating diseases and conditions. And who can blame them.

There is sweet irony in the fact that the architect of these cuts, Iain Duncan Smith, is now subject to the conscience-driven fickleness of Tory backbenchers. How can he, of all people, complain about colleagues who use the meagerness of the Tory majority to force changes in policy? For did the same Iain Duncan Smith not do exactly the same thing in the 1990s, albeit in a less worthy cause?

I well remember how hundreds of Tory MPs were held hostage in the Commons night after night, often into the early hours, because the Whips never knew whether Iain Duncan Smith and his motley band of anti-EU fanatics would vote against their own government. Maybe if David Cameron wants to achieve some kind of consensus on reforms to social security, the first step would be to get rid of a deeply untrusted secretary of state. As Dr Wollaston pointed out, it is difficult to avoid a read-across from the proposed cuts for the disabled to the tax break for those on the higher rate of income tax, even if that equation is illogical. The wider view that there are priorities more pressing than a tax cut for the better-off has persuaded Scottish Labour to say it would not implement the threshold change when tax powers are devolved to Holyrood next year.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell seems to have taken a different view – possibly because there are doubtless plenty of his West London constituents on or close to the threshold but who would certainly not consider themselves rich. The contrast between these two positions was highlighted when the shadow Scottish secretary, Ian Murray, was interviewed on Good Morning Scotland. Mr Murray gave the obvious answer that this is what devolution is about – the right to do things differently. The thrust of the interview continued to be that some great split was being exposed. It struck me that though the debate about “powers” has been droning on for years, there is still no understanding that the “new normal” involves doing a lot things differently, which might even be seen as a sign of strength rather than division.

Nicola Sturgeon has hedged her bets on the tax question, promising an answer next week. While condemning Osborne’s “wrong choice”, she has not yet said if she would implement it in Scotland, in whole or part. Such caution is understandable. A great deal of the Nationalists’ support has resulted from “free things” being showered upon people who could well afford to pay for them. Whether that same market is ready to cheer the prospect of paying more tax than in England is an open question. My guess is that bets will continue to be hedged.

Meanwhile, I must admit puzzlement over the one commitment the SNP has made on use of new tax powers. I just checked the BA website and found I could fly on Monday from Glasgow or Edinburgh to London for around £100 return. Given all the priorities we hear about, is it really Scotland’s highest priority to save business travellers 13 quid on their fare? Discuss!