Osborne sets agenda for 'scroungers and waste' election
Chancellor's Spending Review sends clear signal the Tories will go into election as cost-cutting party
GEORGE OSBORNE'S Spending Review has drawn the battle lines for the next general election and given a clear signal that the Tories will fight it on tackling scroungers and cutting waste.
Welfare claimants are the biggest losers from the cuts the chancellor unveiled in the Commons today. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith's welfare budget is being cut by 9.5 per cent in the 2015-16 fiscal year, the equivalent of £3.6bn a year. The result will be harder tests for the unemployed – particularly foreigners – who want to claim benefit.
Jobseekers will be ordered to attend weekly, rather than fortnightly, meetings, and claimants who do not speak English will be forced to take English classes – even though local councils have been forced to cut the number of English classes they can provide because of squeezed budgets. Anyone joining the dole queue – such as thousands of young people – will be required to wait seven days before getting any money at all.
The review also contained a measure designed to grab tabloid headlines and demonstrate some fairness: the winter fuel allowance is to be cut for expat Brits living on the Costa del Sol or anywhere else abroad where the cold-weather payout is used to pay for air-conditioning.
Duncan Smith was all smiles in the Commons despite the cut in his budget, suggesting that he has signed up to Osborne's election strategy.
It is already bearing fruit because it has forced shadow chancellor Ed Balls to accept the cuts, although he said Osborne's spending review was an admission of failure in Plan A for the economy.
Balls gave his now infamous ‘flat-lining' gesture to Osborne across the despatch box, waving his hand in a sort of horizontal salute. But Sky's political editor Adam Boulton said Balls had been pushed into a corner and admitted he "would do nothing different" despite huffing and puffing for 15 minutes about cuts to the public services, including the police.
The big winner was Education Secretary Michael Gove – intellectually one of the rising stars in the Tory leadership – who got a special mention from the chancellor "for a brilliant programme of reform". Gove even got a pat on the back from a colleague in the chamber when he was praised. Gove looked like the cat who had got the cream, and the reason was obvious – his budget is actually increasing to pay for more free schools and academies.
The chancellor also praised Eric Pickles for allowing his local government budget to be subjected to the biggest cuts. "He is the model of lean government," said Osborne, a sly reference perhaps to the minister's girth.
Pickles will lose 10 per cent from his budget which, coupled with a continuing two-year freeze on council tax, will mean council leaders up and down the country putting the squeeze on residents by trying every trick to raise more revenue. Expect to see parking charges soaring, and that open space near your house being rented out for a pop festival.
All in all, Osborne is planning to slash £11.5bn from the total government spending budget in 2015.
There will be disputes about the detail, but it ensures that the next election will be fought on an agreement between the two sides of politics that austerity is now unavoidable. And it could get worse. There is a conspiracy of silence between the two front benches that none of this is likely to last beyond polling day, and that tax rises are now almost certain, whoever wins power at the next election.
The Speaker, John Bercow, also sealed his fate if the Tories win power by giving the chancellor a fearsome dressing-down for raising a string of questions for Labour instead of answering the questions put to him by Balls. It means Bercow is toast if the Tories get back. Perhaps that's why Tory MPs believe he often sounds as though he's praying for a Labour victory.