Welfare forms 30 per cent of government expenditure. Any cuts to the safety net are deeply controversial and potential political dynamite. But when you promote sweeping cuts to benefits received by under-25s as the opening vision of what a Conservative government would do, then you’ve decided to really go for it.
David Cameron’s welfare speech today was described as the “starter pistol for the election” by Matthew D’Ancona. The same sentiments have been stated by others. The politics of this are obvious. The programme motion for Lords reform will appear later this week and a potential rebellion by up to 100 Conservative MPs provokes nightmares for the coalition government. A strong Conservative statement by the prime minister shows his backbenchers that he has not completely lost touch with his own party and understands an issue that reassures them there is still a Tory in No 10.
But this is a high stakes game. The danger of the differentiation trade-off between the two government partners is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. The language gets more and more separatist, the policies deeper blue and brighter yellow. Can the PM and Deputy PM’s strategists really control this process without it getting out of control?
Speaking to some Conservative MPs this morning, I wanted to find out if Cameron’s welfare speech had provided them with a boost ahead of the unpopular Lords reform debate later in the week. There is no lack of confidence that the public are on their side on welfare: “On all polling this strikes one of the biggest chords with the voters. They think they’re pushing at an open door,” said one.
But Tory MPs don’t roll over to have their bellies scratched quite so easily. The feeling I got from the conversations today was that, after months of post-Budget bad news and u-turns, they are more interested in seeing sustained competence from the PM. One member of the government described it to me as: “The PM has used up lots of goodwill. Now, Cameron is heavily into building fences but he has got to be seen to deliver. He must get the timings and tactics right. MPs would like for him to be seen to really deliver in government. People are looking for recognition that there has got to be some serious change in the Whitehall establishment. There is this whole issue of being seen to be competent. It is a long-term rolling issue.”
On one hand, Cameron must make sure his differentiation process doesn’t prematurely endanger the coalition. On the other, he can’t afford to be viewed by his own party as touting pipe dreams rather than focusing on day-to-day progress. As the PM aims to spend the next couple of months on the front foot building up to a probable September reshuffle, we shall see how successful he is at the balancing act.