Andrew Grice: Big Society? Big silence. And that's just one of Cameron's new problems

Inside Politics

Share
Related Topics

"Forget the child benefit cuts. There's something else that will blow your socks off," the senior Conservative said.

He was talking about George Osborne's announcement on breakfast-time TV that child benefit would be axed for families with someone on the 40 per cent tax rate, and the speech he would make to the Tory conference five hours later.

The "something else" was the Chancellor's announcement of a £26,000-a-year ceiling on benefit claims by one family, in line with the median income for working families. The Tory high command seems to have calculated that another crackdown on claimants accused of milking the system would trump the child benefit decision and win widespread approval in Tory-supporting newspapers, which love stories about social security scroungers. It was wrong.

The child benefit axe will affect 1.2 million families, the benefits ceiling only about 50,000. The Tory papers saw the child benefit cut as a much bigger story, an Exocet aimed at their readers. Instead of blowing our socks off, jittery Tory MPs wondered whether Mr Osborne had shot himself in the foot.

The jitters spread. The following morning, David Cameron appeared to wobble under fire when he took to the breakfast-time shows. He wheeled out an old favourite to steady Tory nerves and placate stay-at-home mums angry about the child benefit cut – transferable tax allowances for married couples.

Mr Cameron, a follower of the New Labour playbook in many respects, had previously declined to copy Tony Blair's strategy of taking on his own party. He repeatedly said he would not "pick a fight" with Tory traditionalists. But times change, and, to show that everyone has to make sacrifices, the Tory leadership judged that it needed a symbolic cut to hit the party's natural supporters. Announcing it at the Tory conference, where the audience would be among the victims, would maximise the impact. "We needed some self-inflicted pain," one senior figure said. That would give Mr Osborne the space to restrict benefits to those at the bottom end, showing we really would be all in this together.

As a by-product, the Chancellor also saw a clever trap for Ed Miliband. He calculated the Labour leader would either have to accept a breach in the principle of universal benefits or explain how he would find £1bn to protect handouts to the relatively well-off while its core supporters further down the income scale were hit by other cuts. But when it was his turn to do breakfast TV on Thursday, Mr Miliband was happy to oppose the cut. If the Tories are going to risk a founding principle – locking the middle classes into the welfare state so they get something back for the taxes which help those at the bottom – Labour is not ready to join them.

By the end of the Tory conference, some of the party's MPs were wondering whether the leadership risked surrendering a weapon that could have been fired at Mr Miliband. When he, rather than his brother, was elected Labour leader, Tory strategists believed they would be able to portray him as "anti-aspiration" because his campaign pitch was for Labour to woo disenchanted working-class voters rather than the middle classes. The danger for the Government is that the child benefit cut, which takes effect when one earner is on £43,875 a year, could also alienate people just below the top rate threshold who aspire to move up the ladder.

The Tories already have problems with the aspirational middle classes who flocked to Margaret Thatcher and later to Mr Blair. There was widespread agreement at a ConservativeHome fringe meeting in Birmingham when disaffection among this group was cited as one reason why the Tories failed to win an overall majority in May.

That failure was the elephant in the conference room. No one wanted to talk about it. "We have moved on," one cabinet minister told me with a smile. Some Tories are unhappy about the lack of a proper inquest. "The Cameroons won't engage, but we should be learning lessons," said a key player in the Tory campaign.

Cameron allies say there would be little to gain from a public post mortem. Now the party is in power, they say, the next election will be very different to the last, and the coalition will make it more so.

The Cameroons insist their man does not regard people on £44,000 a year as rich. Yet some Tory MPs worry that the Cameron-Osborne team might give that impression, reviving latent suspicions among voters that they are out of touch because of their privileged backgrounds. Alan Johnson, the former postie and the new shadow Chancellor, will not wage class war against Mr Osborne, but his life story makes an interesting contrast to the Chancellor's.

In his conference speech, Mr Cameron gave his most passionate explanation of his "big society" vision. His challenge now is to sell it to the public at a time when it might be seen as cover for the huge spending cuts to be announced by Mr Osborne in 11 days. At the ConHome fringe meeting, the "big society" was blamed for a lack of coherence in the party's election message. The activists in the audience were asked whether they had found it a useful campaigning tool. No one put their hand up.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices