Monday, 4 October 2010

Osborne - rainmaker and mythmaker

It doesn't matter what you think of George Osborne's politics, or even the unfortunate appearance of a sneer his features settle to when neutrally composed, he is the man making the political weather in the UK.

First, this morning the cuts child benefit from the rich, or at least those households where one person earns more than £44,000. Then, he announces in his conference speech that no family will, in future, receive more in out-of-work benefits than the average household income of those who are in work.

Eat the rich for breakfast and the poor for lunch seems to the be media strategy. It's hard to work out which announcement was meant to trump the day. The cut in child benefit - one of the cornerstones of the universal welfare state and a benefit paid directly to the mother - will affect 1.2 million people. And once you've taken away one universal benefit...look out winter fuel allowance, bus passes for English pensioners.

He could have waited until the comprehensive spending review to announce the cut, but he does it now. Why? Presumably to erode the concept of universality in time for more changes to benefit rules two weeks from now.

Meanwhile the other headline grabber, the cap on benefits to the level of an average family wage will affect some 50,000 claimants, taking an average of £93 a week of them.

The savings for the Treasury won't be huge but the symbolism of the gesture Osborne claims, is its fairness. The message is actually deeper - it is about building a narrative to scapegoat the poor to justify the cuts agenda.

Osborne isn't above pedalling myths about the unemployed to advance his case for dismantling the welfare state.

Anne McGuire MP caught him out last summer over an alleged £104,000 housing benefit pay out that he referred to in his budget speech.

The Stirling Labour MP pointed out, as Westminster Council did shortly after the budget, that no one was ever awarded such a sum in housing benefit. But the figure became common currency as a cover for cutting housing benefit.

The rates Osborne used in the budget speech were and example of what housing benefit on a five bedroom house in Kensington and Chelsea, one of London's most upmarket boroughs, would be - about £2,000 a week.

"It is what the rate would be," said a spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions afterwards. "We don't have any figures on how many people are claiming that rate."

Yet Osborne used the figure to justify the squeeze the Housing Benefit budget and to create an impression that there is no alternative to his cuts agenda.

All said, though, it was another impressive performance by the chancellor. He drew easy dividing lines between himself and Labour and effectively bodyblocked the middle ground of British politics from any early challenge by Ed Miliband. He's a politician approaching the top of his game.

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