Can David Cameron prove he is more spine than spin?
Published in: Daily Mail
Today, the Prime Minister is to announce a number of important, bold and radical welfare reforms.
We know they are important, bold and radical because a series of carefully placed leaks to the weekend press took care to tell us so.
From these we learned that Mr Cameron will be proposing to end the ‘culture of entitlement’. He will be telling us that the country needs a ‘bigger debate about welfare’ which is sending out the wrong signals such as discouraging people from working or giving preference to unmarried over married parents in housing and other benefits.
To which three responses spring to mind. First, his general point is absolutely right. It is vital to end the perverse welfare incentives which punish virtues such as prudence, thrift and the work ethic and promote irresponsibility, dishonesty and licence.
Second, we’ll believe it when we see it — because as ever, the devil is in the detail.
But third, you might be forgiven a distinct feeling of deja vu. For haven’t we heard most of this before? Isn’t this kind of root-and- branch welfare reform precisely what Iain Duncan Smith is supposed to be doing over at the Department of Work and Pensions?
Indeed, many of Mr Cameron’s remarks appear to repeat what Mr Duncan Smith has so tirelessly expounded — except for one thing. This is the Prime Minister’s explicit re-statement of his election promise not to introduce means-tested benefits for pensioners — while proposing instead to strip hundreds of thousands of under-25s of housing benefit.
Remarkably, this would appear to be slapping down Mr Duncan Smith for going off the reservation by adopting a Left-wing agenda.
For the Work and Pensions Secretary agrees with the Lib Dems that middle-class pensioners should lose their entitlement to free bus passes and winter fuel payments, in order to protect benefits for the poor from the Treasury-directed axe.
Mr Cameron, however, appears finally to have realised that, far from recasting the Tories as no longer the ‘nasty party’, hitting the middle-classes is having a terrible effect on his electoral prospects.
After a politically calamitous few months, he has been made all too aware that Middle Britain regards him as an opportunistic lightweight with no clear sense of direction.
So maybe today’s welfare reform set-piece, endorsing those parts of Mr Duncan Smith’s agenda which reflect public concern about how welfare rewards the feckless and punishes the prudent while repudiating the one proposal which would hit the middle-class, is an attempt by Mr Cameron to reposition himself as in tune with the Middle Britain he has hitherto treated with such contempt.
The great question, however, is whether this is just opportunistic mood music or will result in actual policies. Indeed, if he really is trying to reposition himself on the true centre ground of British politics another radical gauntlet has now been thrown down which he must pick up.
This is the stunning set of proposals by Michael Gove, leaked to this newspaper last week, including the re-introduction of the equivalent of O-level and CSE to replace the one-size-fits-all GCSE exam.
Leading the resulting inevitable furore was Nick Clegg, who said in effect that a two-tier exam replacing GCSE would be introduced over his dead body.
And so, with his Deputy Prime Minister and his Education Secretary squaring up to each other for pistols at dawn, what was the Prime Minister’s response? After considerable prompting, he finally said merely that he backed Mr Gove ‘all the way’.
Given the titanic struggle upon which Mr Gove has now embarked and the crucial importance of his proposals, such support was conspicuously half-hearted.
Indeed, despite Downing Street’s insistence that the Prime Minister knew in advance of Mr Gove’s proposals, it appears he did not know they were to be leaked — and so he was dismayed that this media coup had sent Nick Clegg to the barricades to raise the standard of revolt.
From which Mr Cameron has merely reinforced the view that he is simply paralysed by his terror of the Lib Dems. The Prime Minister should have thrown his entire weight behind Mr Gove, on the grounds that the very future of the country is at stake over these reforms.
Instead, there were reports yesterday that Mr Gove was preparing to compromise. If so, that would show up the Prime Minister not only as shamefully weak but as someone whose fine words just can’t be taken seriously.
The fact is that between them, welfare and education account for a very high proportion of Britain’s grievous slide into demoralisation and decline.
The welfare state has eroded both personal responsibility and the sense of obligation towards others which create a healthy and civilised society. In their place, it has fostered a culture of entitlement which has fed the ‘me society’ of grasping, grievance and greed.
This has gone hand-in-hand with Britain’s education disaster. In the grip of an ideological fixation with equality of outcomes, the education world abandoned its core goal of transmission of knowledge.
Teachers stopped teaching and became instead facilitators of ‘child-centred’ learning, in which pupils were effectively abandoned to ignorance and unreason. No child could be seen to fail at anything in case this damaged their fragile self-esteem.
The result of all this bunkum was the degraded GCSE exam — and plummeting education standards right through the system, even dragging down the standard of university degrees.
With his proposed reforms, Mr Gove plans to lever standards upwards by forcing teachers to teach what children need to learn in order to pass the newly rigorous 16-plus exam.
On both welfare and education, therefore, Mr Cameron could start pulling Britain out of the mire into which it has sunk. Which is why it is essential that he faces down the Lib Dems and supports the most radical reforms.
Personally, I believe he happens to be right about middle-class pensioners. Means-testing is a rotten solution to a welfare problem that is far more fundamental than benefits going to the better-off.
For example, I believe Child Benefit, paid indiscriminately to mothers on the birth of each child, has been an engine of mass fatherlessness. Mr Cameron is said to be looking at restricting Child Benefit payments — but this is likely to be yet more mood music which never results in actual change.
The Lib Dem stranglehold on the Prime Minister is not the only problem here. Mr Cameron came to power on a strategy of ‘detoxifying’ the Tory brand by adopting Left-wing positions.
Chief amongst these was the principle of equality. This meant the Cameroons signed up to the redistribution of wealth — which has helped create the culture of welfare dependency.
For similar reasons, they also set their faces against selective schools — which are uncontroversial features of European education systems where standards are so much higher, and were also once crucial to lifting countless children out of disadvantage in Britain.
Mr Cameron doesn’t just need to face down the Lib Dems. He needs to acknowledge the error of his own wannabe Left-wing strategy.
It can hardly have escaped his notice that, among the public, policies demonised by Left-wingers as ‘Right-wing’ or ‘reactionary’ attract enormous support.
That’s because people are desperate to undo the damage done by welfare and education policies that have sapped the country’s resilience and blighted its prospects.
In order to raise his own political game, Mr Cameron therefore needs to show by deeds rather than words that he really means to reform welfare and education, and quash the now widespread perception that he is more about spin than spine.