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By Peter Hoskin
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CAMERONIf
you feel like reading something about David Cameron that isn’t related to
Europe, then how about the interview with him in the latest issue of the House
Magazine? The problem with these interviews conducted by Paul Waugh and Sam
Macrory is that they contain too many brilliant nuggets of
information, dammit, to squeeze into one blog-post. I mean, for instance, the PM says that he likely to appoint more Tory
peers before the summer; that he doesn’t think Nigel Farage should be involved
in the next round of TV debates; and that the Conservatives’ message for 2015
will be “very sleeves rolled-up” — and that’s not even a tenth of it.

But
the passages that tugged most forcefully at my optic nerves were those relating
to tax and benefits. Once again, after recent speculation to
the contrary
, Mr Cameron denies that he will cut universal benefits for
pensioners. Also, after recent speculation to
the same
, he says that he will legislate to recognise marriage in the tax
system in this Parliament. And he also has this to say about the Government’s
child benefit policy:

“Look. I'm
not saying that taking away child benefit from people is easy. I don’t think
people who earn £50000, £60000 are rich. You live in an expensive part of the
country, you’ve got big costs to contend with, and you’re paying for the
mortgage, you’re paying for the season ticket to get to work, you're meeting
all the costs of bringing up children, you know, life is very expensive. I
don’t say people on £50000, £60000 are rich but they are clearly better off
than people on £20000 or £30000. So as I say, I don’t relish taking money from
anyone and, you know, child benefit is a popular and successful benefit. It
goes to the mum, you know, it’s a good slug of money, £20 for the first child,
so I don’t relish taking it away from anyone and people I’m sure put it to good
use, but, you know, to govern is to choose. We have to make difficult choices
about the deficit and I think this was the right choice.”


This
seems, to me, like a slightly different sort of salesmanship from David
Cameron. Although he has said much of the above before, here the overall tone is
more apologetic (“I don’t relish taking money from anyone”) than in the past.
Compare it, for instance, with his jibe from
last October
that:

“I do not see why those on the Opposition
Front Bench should go on collecting their child benefit when we are having to
make so many other difficult decisions.”

Or his more
recent
explication of Conservative thinking, specifically to do with tax credits,
but also applicable to child benefit:

“We have had
to take difficult decisions about welfare — both in-work welfare and
out-of-work welfare — so we have put a cap of 1% on all the working benefits,
including the one that she has mentioned. Above all, I think that the right
thing to do is to cut the taxes of people who are in work, rather than taking
more in taxes and then redistributing it through tax credits. We on this side
want to cut taxes on those who work. That is what we are doing and there will
be more of it to come.”

He
sounds less thrusting in his House Magazine interview, doesn’t he?

If
this is indeed a conscious shift, you can certainly understand why Mr Cameron
would make it. The child benefit policy has been a controversial one — not
least with the centre-right media — and a little bit of tact probably won’t go
amiss. The Conservatives will be eager not to alienate any of those “strivers”
whose votes are up for grabs.

But
this does still muddy the Conservatives’ wider message. Mix all the above
quotes together, and it’s not entirely clear whether Mr Cameron’s fundamental
position is. Does he believe that people on good incomes shouldn’t get child
benefit? Or does he think that the cuts are a great sadness, necessary only in
times of austerity? Would he further reduce people’s taxes once the deficit is
contained? Or would he raise their benefit levels again? And so on.

None
of these are mutually exclusive propositions, but sometimes it’s hard to know
which way the Prime Minister veers. Indeed, it’s like I’ve said
before
: when it comes to universal benefits, his Government is often
inconsistent.

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