By Paul Goodman
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The coverage of David Cameron's welfare speech is entering its third day. The Prime Minister started off by trailing it with an interview in the Mail on Sunday. He delivered it yesterday, and Tim Montgomerie and I wrote about it on this site – here and here. So did Tim Leunig of CentreForum. Today, the comment pages and blogs are full of further views on it: for example, Iain Martin in the Daily Telegraph is for the speech's contents and Polly Toynbee in the Guardian is (unsuprisingly) against.
But hang on a moment. Why are we devoting so much attention to this speech?
After all, the Liberal Democrats almost certainly won't allow its main proposals – restricting housing benefit awards to young people, curbing child payments for larger families, time-limiting welfare – to be effected before the next election. Mr Cameron more or less conceded this when he said yesterday that his Coalition partners would be likely to support a requirement on unemployed people to write CVs. This suggested that they are unlikely to back the other proposals.
So there is no guarantee that the Mr Cameron's plans will be implemented before the election. And since he may not be Prime Minister after it, there's no guarantee that they will be implemented then either.
As I indicated yesterday, it will be said that the speech was in part an exercise in "reverse differentiation" – doing to the Liberal Democrats on welfare what they've done to the Conservatives over the NHS, Beecroft, the ECHR, and now GCSEs.
And that it therefore represents a toughening of the Tory position to reflect the views of voters in marginal seats, not least in the midlands and north. Policy Exchange's Northern Lights research was a reminder that they have tough views on immigration, crime, welfare and the ECHR.
All true. But this doesn't explain why Mr Cameron's speech was made now, some three years away from the date of the next election: after all, we're not even halfway through this Parliament yet.
It's evident that the timing was closely connected with the coming Commons vote on Lords reform. The Commons breaks for its summer recess in three weeks, and a vote on Nick Clegg's plan for change is due to take place before it happens.
It's been reported that over 100 Conservative MPs may rebel, and that up to five PPS's may resign. It's sometimes to the mutual benefit of both whips and rebels to exaggerate rebel numbers – the latter to try to create a sense of momentum, and the former to prepare the ground for claims of success afterwards. But there's no doubt that the proposals are deeply unpopular among Tory MPs, and that they emanate from Mr Clegg does nothing to make them less so.
Meanwhile, some Liberal Democrats are linking Lords reform to the boundary review. (It was originally linked to granting a referendum on AV.) If the former doesn't go through, they are hinting, then the latter won't either. Any collapse of the review could cause a major crisis for the Coalition – since Number 10 is relying on it to ease the electoral disadvantage which the Conservatives face.
Mary Riddell, who is in effect the Daily Telegraph's Labour Party columnist, goes through Labour's options today. She says that Ed Miliband may seek to defeat the Government's programme motion in the Commons, thus ensuring that debate isn't timetabled and the rest of the Coalition's business in the lower house grinds to a halt. Or he may seek to force a referendum (which would of course re-open the EU referendum question). But whatever he does, he's likely to seek to wreak maximum damage on the Government. And as Tim writes elsewhere on the site this morning, Ed Balls is also trying to exploit Tory backbench discontent over fuel duty.
All this helps to explain why Mr Cameron has opened up clear blue water over welfare reform now. He wants to persuade wavering Conservative MPs that his heart and their instincts are as one, therefore encouraging them to put their trust in his motives and intentions…and thus stick with the Government on Mr Clegg's Lords Bill.
The looming vote on the bill also helps to explain why a reshuffle hasn't taken place yet. It will leave in its wake disappointed ex-Ministers who've been fired and frustrated backbenchers who haven't been promoted. The Prime Minister and the Whips would rather deal with this consequence after a sticky vote than before.
I don't think anyone is in a position to know at present whether the Prime Minister's gambit will work. But some Tory MPs I spoke to yesterday were sceptical: very simply, they are weary of what they see as an excessive reliance by Number 10 on tactical gambits. And feelings about the Lords run deep among many of them.