The sugary coating to the Budget has worn off, with MPs now left with a particularly bitter taste in their mouths over George Osborne’s plans to cut the welfare claims of 640,000 disabled people to save £1.3 billion. Tory backbenchers are on the march, we report this morning, with Andrew Percy warning that it will have “zero chance” of getting through Parliament, while Nicky Morgan said on Question Time that it was a “suggestion” that was “still under consultation”. It’s worth remembering the Education Secretary’s remark during the backlash against tax credit cuts that Osborne was in “listening mode”, which paved the way for him to drop them outright, so is this a sign that a U-turn is on the cards?
Ian Birrell certainly hopes so, writing in today’s paper that this prospective cut “hits the wrong people for the wrong reasons” and is “woeful politics”. “Mr Osborne is fortunate there is not a functioning opposition,” he goes on, “But he still needs to make another of his trademark U-turns – and fast.” Why has the Chancellor decided to offer this “suggestion”? The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that it would hit 370,000 people, at an average loss of £3,500 a year. Although we point out in our leader that it’s not so much a cut, as that disability spending will only rise to £17.2 billion in 2021, rather than £18.2. But this still means critics have been able to offer the politically toxic criticism that Osborne is “cutting benefits for the disabled”. “There is still a case to be made for the Government’s changes to disability benefit,” we lament in our leader, “Sadly, Mr Osborne’s handling of the issue so far means it is harder for him to make it.”
The public has already taken against Osborne’s latest Budget, according to the Times’ new YouGov poll which has found that more of them think it is unfair than fair. This is the second of his Budgets to receive such a negative initial finding – the last was his “omnishambles” in 2012. It also suggested that Labour is now pulling ahead (34% to 33% in the polls), the third survey in a row to show them up and the Conservatives down. Is this the start of a decisive shift towards Labour in public opinion? Not exactly, as some of the pollsters don’t seem confident about their own results, with ICM distancing itself from its “somewhat misleading” and “methodologically perturbing” findings that Labour were at level pegging with the Tories at 36%. In short, they were only equal due to rounding ICM explained, making clear it would have put the Tories 3 points ahead if it applied its new modelling which weeds out excess Labour voters that have “often” cropped up in samples.
If Labour does remain level with the Tories (or ahead), is this the price for disunity over Europe? Jeremy Corbyn’s party is undeniably split too in its own way, but the Tories – as the governing party – enjoy greater attention over the issue, so a larger potential for drift in the polls. Split over Europe again and accused of making mean cuts, it’s like the Tories have gone back to the 1990s. Whatever happened to that nice David Cameron and that modernisation thingie of his?
Tory HQ shouldn’t panic yet though, as George Eaton points out Ed Miliband was as much as 11 points ahead in the polls at this point – and we know what happened at the general election. Of course, the last time the Tories were divided on Europe and accused of being nasty cutters, Labour had a telegenic centrist leader and was wooing middle England.