A major welfare announcement would usually be made to the Conservative Conference by the Work and Pensions Secretary. So why it today’s about workfare replacing welfare being made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Not, you can be sure, because the two men are on tense terms, and the second wants to deny the first a place in the sun (though the relationship between them is far from easy: George Osborne thinks that Iain Duncan Smith is “not clever enough” to run the department, according to Matthew D’Ancona’s new book about the Coalition.
Nor is the answer simply that trumpeting Action This Day, as Churchill used to put it it, is an advantage that the Government has over the Opposition – though it is certainly true that, after Ed Miliband’s impactful speech last week, Osborne and David Cameron are deploying the gambit to the full. The explanation, rather, lies in what the Chancellor is striving to project both about the Conservatives and about himself. Unlike the economy or the NHS or basic political competence, welfare was not a first-rank election issue in 2010. But it is one over which Cameron has a clear advantage over his main rival.
Polling and focus groups apparently show the benefits cap to be sweepingly popular: indeed, the only problem with it, Tories report, is that voters believe it isn’t set isn’t low enough. So that “benefits will be stripped from the long-term jobless unless they work full time picking up litter, removing graffiti or preparing meals for the elderly”, as the Daily Mail reports today, can be expected to go down equally well. The Guardian reports that Lynton Crosby wants the Conservatives to focus on four issues: “the economy, welfare, the strength of the prime minister (and weakness of Ed Miliband), and immigration”.
Osborne’s speech today is thus part of a plan, and one that pre-dates the campaining arrival of Crosby himself. As one of very few politicians at the top of the Party who thinks strategically – indeed the Chancellor, for all his failures as well as his successes, remains the only real strategist it has at the top – Osborne has long grasped the need to roll back Gordon Brown’s expansion of Labour’s client base through measures targeted at better off people: hence the Tory pledge during the election campaign to concentrate child tax credit on poorer families. Rightly or wrongly, workfare schemes are far less politically risky.
However, the Chancellor is trying to do more than shape a brand for his Party. He is also attempting to form one for himself. Though as senior in this Government as Gordon Brown was in Tony Blair’s – and infinitely closer to Cameron than Brown was to Blair – Osborne lacks the projection of Boris Johnson or Michael Gove or even Theresa May. This is partly because of his submarine role at the Treasury, a reclusive department, partly because he has been careful to avoid even a hint of repetition of the Blair-Brown rivalry in his relationship with the Prime Minister, and partly because of his own personality.
As a politician, the Chancellor is the ultimate insider. He may occasionally venture out of the Treasury to be photographed in a hard hat, but you will never see him snapped with his wife and children. He may be Octopus Osborne of Westminster and Whitehall, whose tentacles reach into almost every crevice of government and Party, but his personality is unknown to the public. So as the professional politician that he is, Osborne is striving to project one. He will try to suggest in his speech today that he is the Chancellor Who Weathered The Storm.
But if he wants to rise further, he will have to do more, and his interest in welfare is a sign that he knows it. It is an attempt to say to voters: I think what you think; your values are my values. If Cameron goes down in 2015, the Chancellor will go down with him. In he doesn’t, Osborne would never move against his patron and friend. The best he can therefore hope for is being a fag-end Prime Minister, like Brown or Major or Eden. He will know that such an outcome is unlikely, if only because he would be an unlikely winner of any leadership election. None the less, that he has seized the workfare announcement is a small sign of intent.