George Osborne has failed to win the support of the majority of the public for his decision to squeeze most state benefits, according to a survey for The Independent.
When the Chancellor announced this month that most benefits and tax credits would increase by one per cent – which is less than inflation – for the next three years, the Conservatives were confident that the move would be highly popular, supported by a clear majority of the electorate.
But according to ComRes, the public is split down the middle. While 49 per cent agree that the Government is right, a surprisingly high 43 per cent disagree and eight per cent say they don't know. The benefit uprating Bill will be published today and Labour will vote against it in the Commons in the new year.
The squeeze on benefits is less popular among women than men. While men support Mr Osborne's decision by 52 to 43 per cent, women back it by a smaller margin – 47 to 44 per cent.
Although 69 per cent of Tory supporters agree with the decision, it is opposed by most Labour voters (54 per cent) and Liberal Democrat supporters (65 per cent). The basic state pension is not affected by the squeeze and will go up by 2.5 per cent in April. Despite that, those aged 65 and over oppose the below-inflation increase for most other benefits by a margin of 46 to 41 per cent. Opposition to the benefits squeeze is pronounced among those aged 18 to 24, with more than half disagreeing with the move, but it is supported by a majority of people in other age groups.
Mr Osborne, who has positioned the Tories as on the side of "strivers", told his party's annual conference in October: "Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shiftworker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?"
Some Labour MPs have expressed fears that their party would be walking into a trap set by Mr Osborne by voting against the benefits squeeze. However, their fears may be allayed by the poll's findings.
Senior Labour figures believe opinion is changing as voters realise that 60 per cent of the people affected by the clampdown are in work and receiving tax credits rather than unemployed. Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said last night: "People are starting to see through George Osborne's attempts to play politics with social security. This Government has failed on jobs, put up the dole bill and is now taxing strivers to pay for their failure."
Labour will mount a new-year campaign contrasting the below-inflation rises with Mr Osborne's cut in the 50p top rate of tax on earnings above £150,000, which takes effect at the same time next April.
Yesterday, David Cameron defended the one per cent rise in benefits at Prime Minister's Questions, admitting it was a "difficult decision" but pointing out that tax credits and public sector pay would increase by the same amount.
Ed Miliband claimed the Chancellor's "tax on strivers" would hit working families. He told the Prime Minister: "The reality is, in the third year of your government more children are going hungry and more families are relying on food banks." He attacked Mr Cameron as "very out of touch" with ordinary families.
Mr Cameron replied: "What is out of touch is denying the fact we had a deficit, left by your government, that we have had to deal with. We have been able to do it at the same time as cutting taxes for the poorest in our country, increasing child tax credits and freezing the council tax to help those families." He insisted the richest people would pay more in tax under every year of the Coalition than during any year of the previous Labour government.
Pressure groups seized on Treasury figures suggesting that working families would be the biggest losers. Imran Hussain, head of policy for the Child Poverty Action Group, said of today's legislation: "This is a poverty-producing Bill. It will hit all low-income families hard in the pocket and can only drive up child poverty.
"With so many struggling with rising living costs the Government should be helping, not hurting, all families. In the long run, we cannot cut the deficit by shredding the life chances of our poorest children."