Chancellor George Osborne has attempted to pitch his unpopular £4.5bn cuts to tax credits as a “new contract” of higher pay and reformed welfare. The move is part of a Conservative “One Nation” crusade on the centre ground, which they see as abandoned by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.
However, with over 3 million families set to have been £1,000 worse off annually by Christmas, the government’s plans have been delayed by the House of Lords and attacked by both sides of the Commons. This has raised doubts as to whether this newly founded “workers’ party” (as penned in Osborne’s Tory conference speech) is living up to its own re-branding.
Conservative MP Heidi Allen slammed the pace of these welfare reforms for being “too hard, too fast”
The government’s proposed reforms are described by David Cameron as “part of a package” that includes tax cuts and the implementation of a National Living Wage. The aim is to reduce the welfare bill by forcing employers to make up for the shortfall in workers’ incomes.
The changes have come under fire from both ends of the political spectrum. Labour presented a united opposition in the Commons, with all sides of the party condemning the plan. In a headline-grabbing move, Conservative MP Heidi Allen slammed the pace of these welfare reforms for being “too hard, too fast” in her maiden speech. Even Boris Johnson – perhaps to undermine Osborne’s credibility as a Tory leadership contender – reiterated his opposition to these cuts throughout the party’s conference in September.
His angry reaction to the news that the Lords had partially opposed the measure made it clear that this was also a personal pursuit
The full implementation of the cuts during the early stages of parliament is both ideological and political. With his rigid adherence to spending targets set during the 2015 campaign, Osborne seems to be aiming to use his current power, rather than use it. His angry reaction to the news that the Lords had partially opposed the measure made it clear that this was also a personal pursuit.
Against this, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s offer of bipartisan support in the event of a government U-turn seems all the more ineffective. It was made clear that the Tories would attempt to balance the books, no matter the short-term political costs. While a technically a failure, McDonnell’s move has provided a useful stick to beat the Conservatives come election time.
Despite this, Labour and Liberal Democrat peers voted in the Lords to delay these cuts for another three years by 289 votes to 272. This will bring the changes further in line with a scheduled progression of the minimum wage towards £9 an hour by 2020.
Lords opposition to a financial proposal is accused of breaking a longstanding convention
Having often been denounced as undemocratic and illegitimate by the British left, the second chamber now finds itself acting as an alternative opposition to a centre-right agenda. It is perhaps through this medium that opposition parties, by far outnumbering Conservatives in the Lords, can cut a second set of teeth.
This must be achieved despite a Conservative review of the Lords, sparked by what has been dubbed a “constitutional crisis”. Lords opposition to a financial proposal is accused of breaking a longstanding convention.
Against this, Commons Speaker John Bercow has denied that anything “procedurally improper” has occurred. It has been noted that the government’s proposal of the changes as a “statutory instrument” was what opened it up to potential rejection in the first place- something impossible with a normal bill.
It seems that Osborne’s authority and the One Nation narrative are surrounded on all sides. The Conservatives were forced to suggest extreme responses to the law being potentially thrown out, such as flooding the Lords with Tory peers.
Having embroiled the government in a row so soon after the election, the chancellor may have to choose his battles carefully to avoid becoming even more divisive a figure. He must tread carefully if he still holds ambitions of succeeding his leader into Number 10.