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The welfare wolf in sheep's clothing

Remember "hug a hoody"?

Compassionate Conservatism? David Cameron based his appeal to voters in 2010 on the premise that the "nasty party" was no more. In its place, he proclaimed a Conservative party that stood up for the socially excluded, poor and vulnerable.

Yet four years on, in the light of the Chancellor's plans to slash welfare by a further eye-watering £12 billion if he secures another term in Number 11, that version of Toryism is looking to be increasingly at odds with reality.

Senior Liberal Democrats have attacked George Osborne for his "demonic" zeal in cutting welfare, echoing Nick Clegg's comments of earlier in the month when he called the plans a monumental mistake.

There is, of course, political calculation in the LibDems' line of attack, but there is also truth in the accusation that certain senior Conservatives know they have few votes to lose among benefit claimants and potentially votes to gain among the working and middle classes for getting tough on welfare.

Because of this, an ideological rift has appeared, not just between the Tories and LibDems, but at the very top of the Conservative Party. On one side, committed social reformers like Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith talk the language of redemption for those imprisoned on benefits; they fear the social cost of further cuts. On the other, hard-headed tacticians like Mr Osborne are determined to shrink the state and rebalance the books, apparently with much less concern about what the human impact may be. The hard-liners appear to have the upper hand. This may seem like just another spat over the perennially controversial issue of welfare reform, but it is not. With his promise of £12bn more in welfare cuts without touching pensioner benefits or increasing taxes on the richest, George Osborne has crossed a Rubicon. Labour and the Conservatives have long shared a commitment to the principle, if not the methods and extent, of welfare reform. Labour's Welfare to Work scheme, which was moderately successful, was intended to liberate people from poverty and benefit dependence, language echoed by Mr Duncan Smith. Though there are deep concerns about how the Coalition's welfare reforms are already impacting on the most vulnerable, they have thus far been justified on the basis that those who need support the most will get it.

It is hard to see how the poorest can possibly be protected, however, if a further £12bn is cut. Mr Osborne is committed to the pension "triple lock" and will not touch universal pensioner benefits (many pensioners having a habit of voting Conservative) and so, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, it will be impossible to make his cuts without hitting the poor, sick, disabled or people with children, an analysis backed even by Robert Chote of the Government's own Office of Budget Responsibility.

Mr Osborne talks of "difficult choices", but appears to have no difficulty targeting further austerity at those who can least afford it. No wonder it has led some to suspect him of having been a wolf in sheep's clothing all along.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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