Election 2012-2015, day one: Benefit Bashing

It may be June 2012, but David Cameron’s effectively started the Conservative Party’s 2015 election campaign. Why else devote a half-hour speech, and two days’ headlines, to proposals for another welfare shake-up.

Meanwhile the first welfare shake-up (“on a scale not seen since World War Two” according to the PM) is far from complete.

His plans are not government policy, not in the coalition agreement, and very unlikely to be approved by the Lib Dems.

And that’s the point.

A lot has changed since “Call Me Dave” stood in the Downing Street Rose Garden, staring all misty-eyed at Nick Clegg.

Two years ago, it was as if the Tories and Lib Dems had merged. Some even suggested they might fight the next election as a coalition. Now, they’re desperate to show off their differences, arguing in public like a long-married couple.

Hence David Cameron’s resolutely right-wing suggestions.

Many build on Iain Duncan Smith’s existing changes – tightening up the rules, making it harder to spend years, even decades on benefits.

But within the speech are flashes of a much tougher line – straying beyond money-saving and into questions of personal behaviour and morality.

The Prime Minister contrasted the example of a couple, holding off starting a family because of financial concerns, with an unemployed couple with four children, living off the state.

Is it fair to compare a six-person household to a childless couple? And is it the government’s job to suggest, as Iain Duncan Smith seemed to on Radio 4 today, that the poorest families on welfare should consider whether they can even afford to have children?

Some of David Cameron’s ideas don’t seem to fit with earlier ones. Two years ago, the unemployed were told to be prepared to travel further to find work. Now, if you’re unemployed, the message is to stay with your parents until you’re at least 25.

And let’s remember. None of this is Conservative policy. None of this will happen under the coalition.

It’s David Cameron’s first glimpse of clear blue water – a hint of what the Tories would like to do, if only they weren’t being held back by those pesky, wishy-washy Liberals.

The Prime Minister warned some of his ideas would not be popular – in fact he knows they’ll be enormously popular.

One poll suggests 74% of voters think welfare payments should be cut. Well over half of Labour voters share that view – something for Ed Miliband to consider before coming out against it.

Bashing benefit claimants gets good headlines – it annoys Lib Dems, puts Labour on the back foot, and cheers Conservatives. Exactly what David Cameron needs right now.

Especially with the likes of Michael Gove wooing the Tory right.

Of course the other thing about a 3-year election campaign is you can promise all sorts of things, before mysteriously forgetting the least popular ones in your manifesto.