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By Peter Hoskin
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Flicking
through this morning’s papers, it's clearer that the government is being
pressured from two directions over child benefit. There are those regard the
cuts for higher income earners as a “penalty on aspiration”, and who might be
emboldened by reports that the policy could
run into legal difficulties
. And there are those who see the cuts as little
more than a start — as I wrote yesterday,
and as Rachel Sylvester also suggests in
today’s Times (£)
— to be built on by reductions in other universal
benefits.

So
which way, if any, is the government likely to budge? Judging by the polling
and supporting quotes pushed out by the Treasury yesterday, it will take a lot to
get George Osborne to drop the policy — and I expect that goes doubly so now
that explanatory letters have been dispatched to those who will be affected.
But, as we know, the government is also reluctant to move against other
universal benefits. So most signs point to them ploughing on as is, on the
difficult middle ground.


Or
do they? Rachel Sylvester’s column also contains this noteworthy snippet:

“According
to one Tory strategist, it’s critical that Mr Cameron does not let himself be
boxed in in 2015, as he was in 2010, because the Conservatives will almost
certainly have to remove benefits from some older people if they win power. ‘Everybody
wants to make sure retired people are treated properly but in the context of
deficit reduction with tough things going on they have done pretty well so far,’
he says. ‘Cameron understands that the likelihood is that in the next
Parliament we will have to look at this, so knows he needs to leave his options
open.’”

If it’s true that the Tory leadership is considering trimming back
the universal benefit bill, albeit after the next election, then that’s both fiscal and moral progress. But we shouldn’t get too excited
just yet. I suspect much will depend on how these child benefit cuts are
implemented: if the policy goes down messily — as it looks like if might — then
Downing Street could soon get nervy again. This is why what’s
happening now is so important.

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