Ministers were alarmed at the furious reaction to a leaked document from a top adviser to Harriet Harman, the Social Security Secretary, proposing "substantial savings from the sick and disability benefits" to pay for extra spending on health and education.
Still smarting from the rebellion by 61 Labour MPs over cuts in lone parent benefit last week, members of the Cabinet from the Prime Minister down queued up to offer reassurance to five million claimants - but there are still clear signs of government determination to rein in the ballooning pounds 90bn-a-year social security budget.
Mr Brown yesterday confirmed that the Government will make "radical changes" to the welfare state, aimed at getting as many people as possible - including the disabled - into jobs.
"In its present form, the welfare state is failing millions of people. Our opponents on the left and right do not seem to recognise that," he said. "Therefore we must rebuild it with radical reforms based on opportunity and fairness."
The Chancellor will outline the Government's plans in an appearance at the Commons Treasury Select Committee on Wednesday. He insists that unlike the Conservatives' "slash and burn" strategy on state benefits, his review of public spending due for completion next summer is "not cuts-led". However, he argues that the policy of his New Deal is that "those who can work, will work" and by moving into jobs they will reduce spending on disability benefits, currently climbing at 10 per cent a year. "The benefits bill will be lower if you get these people into work," said Mr Brown.
Disability groups condemned the leaked memorandum. The largest, Scope, said it made disabled people anxious about the future of benefits on which they depend, and damaged confidence in the Government.
Ken Livingstone MP, a member of Labour's national executive who voted against the Government last week, warned of a further backbench revolt if public spending on the sick and the disabled is cut. The six main benefits cost pounds 16bn a year.
Mr Brown's move is evidently designed to take the heat out of the volatile situation at Westminster. "For sick and disabled people, we are promoting the right to work, and will continue to do so where they want it," he said. Aides added there would be no compulsion - unlike the rule for those involved in welfare-to-work who lose benefits if they do not take up a job or training.
The Prime Minister takes up the theme this morning on GMTV, saying in a recorded interview: "No one is talking about taking away benefits from those who need them, because we mustn't do that. What we must try and do is make sure that those who can and want to get into work are able to do so."Reuse content