We don’t normally start ToryDiary posts by highlighting the words of a Labour frontbencher. That stuff’s generally reserved for LeftWatch. But there was a fairly striking moment in Harriet Harman’s Today Programme interview earlier – and it probably caught the ears of No.10, too.
It was her admission that Labour will review their policy on pensioner benefits ahead of the next election. Ed Miliband, you’ll remember, said last week that the current set-up, by which wealthy pensioners receive benefits such as Winter Fuel Allowance and free TV licences, “needs to be looked at” – before his party’s spokespeople swarmed out to reassure folk that no decisions had yet been made, that their leader didn’t like the idea of means-testing, etc, etc. But, listening to Mrs Harman, it seems as though something really is afoot. “You always have to look at everything,” is how she put it, “to make sure the provision is right for the income distribution at the time.”
As the Telegraph’s Benedict Brogan suggests, there could be a strong dose of politics in Mrs Harman’s remarks. She’ll know that the Lib Dems are opposed to these universal benefits, and that – as Nick Clegg implied yesterday – it’s likely to be one of the sorest points of intra-Coalition discussion ahead of this summer’s Spending Review. Perhaps Labour are hoping to line up with the Lib Dems against the Tories, in this case.
But it’s worth remembering that it’s not just the Lib Dems and, possibly, Labour who are minded against hand-outs for the have-lots. Iain Duncan Smith is as well. And so too – judging by a speech he delivered just before his ascension into Government – is Nick Boles. Indeed, with the Chancellor’s secateurs hovering above all their budgets, I suspect quite a few ministers are of the same opinion. With the support of centre-right papers such as the Sun and the Telegraph, there’s quite a consensus building.
Except, crucially, that consensus doesn’t include David Cameron. We all know the story by now: that Mr Cameron has been determined not to cut pensioner perks ever since he promised to keep them during the last election campaign. And, despite occasional rumblings that he might change his mind for after 2015, he’s sticking to that position for now. As his spokesman put it yesterday, “The Prime Minister’s view on the matter is that these benefits are important, they have been protected and that protection will last.”
I’ve explained plenty of times before – including here – why I think benefits for wealthy pensioners ought to be cut, so I won’t go into that now. But there are a couple of new ironies that are worth noting. The first is that, if Labour do indeed move against pensioner perks, it’s very different to the situation that was unfolding at the start of this Parliament. Back then, I believed that universal benefits could be “this Parliament’s key dividing line” – but with Labour on the side of universality. The Ed Miliband who was then attacking the idea of a “residual welfare state that is just for the poor” wouldn’t have said that these benefits need “looking at”.
And the second irony is to do with the wider political argument. We currently have a Tory leadership defending pensioner benefits against all-comers while fighting for child benefit cuts on the grounds that “it is very difficult to justify continuing to pay for the child benefit of the wealthiest 15 per cent of families in society”. And they may soon be joined by a Labour Party that wants wealthy pensioners to lose out on similar grounds, but that is opposed to the child benefit cuts. Consistency has never been one of Westminster’s defining features.