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By Peter Hoskin
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Time for the the fifth result from our end-of year readers’ survey: those for Policy of
the Year. The overall winner, by some distance, was the benefits cap, which
secured 57.6 per cent of the vote. The list of runners-up reads as follows:

  • The higher
    and higher basic income tax allowance: 24.1 per cent.
  • The
    replacement of GCSEs: 13.1 per cent.
  • The
    introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners: 5.3 per cent.

At which
point, some of you might be thinking: which benefit cap are we talking about? There
have, after all, been two in town this year. There’s the one that the
Chancellor announced in 2010, but that has rumbled along in Parliament ever
since, and will be introduced in 2013, to cap the amount that any one household
can receive in benefits at £26,000 a year. And there’s the one that he
announced in the last Autumn Statement, to cap the uprating of several key benefits
at 1 per cent a year.


Well, the
answer is both, really — not least because these two benefit caps are similar
in several respects. Fiscally, they’re both designed to cut back a benefits
system that has sprawled outwards, incessantly and expensively, for decades now.
 Politically, they both chime with one of
Osborne’s favourite themes: the contrast between, as he put it in his conference speech, “the shift worker, leaving
home in the dark hours of the early morning,” and “their next-door neighbour
sleeping off a life on benefits”.

In the case
of the first benefits cap, it’s worth noting that there are problems facing the
policy. Some departments have raised concerns about its effects, and it
has already been pushed back slightly after Whitehall’s computers said no.

But, despite
all that, the politics of the cap are firmly in Mr Osborne’s favour. Polls show
that the measure has wide support from the public, who, if anything, think it could
go further. I mean, to take a poll at random, this YouGov number found that 36 per cent of
people think that the cap should be less than £20,000 a year. In the same poll,
only 9 per cent of people reckoned that there shouldn’t be a cap.

But the
politics are considerably murkier in the case of the second cap, to uprate
benefits at 1 per cent a year. This is probably because the policy more
obviously impinges on “strivers,” whose in-work benefits will also be affected.
And so when folk are simply asked whether benefits should rise by more than the
Chancellor is proposing, they tend to answer in the affirmative. But when more
context is provided, such as that benefits have been rising at a faster rate
than wages, they swing behind Osborne’s policy.

In the end,
the argument over benefits will be won or lost in the framing. Ed Miliband, who
opposes Osborne’s caps, will want to keep it about the money in your back
pocket. George Osborne will want to it to be about wages and deficit reduction.
And the upshot, as I wrote
recently
, is that this year’s Policy of the Year is set to be one of the
political battles of 2013 and beyond.

> The four other Picks of 2012 announced so far are Jesse Norman as Backbencher of the YearNick Clegg as Yellow B**tard of the YearBoris Johnson's re-election as
Conservative Achievement of the Year
; and Owen Paterson as the One to Watch in 2013.

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