David Blackburn

Huhne and the universal benefit conundrum

Huhne and the universal benefit conundrum
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Chris Huhne has given an interview to the Telegraph. According to the front page report, the Energy Secretary has nothing to say about nuclear power, new wind farms or energy security; but rather a lot to say about economic and social policies that are strictly beyond his purview.

Jeremy Hunt’s belief that child benefit should be limited across the board is dismissed because there are ‘limits to how much we can achieve through changes in the tax and benefits system’ – this week’s Spectator argues otherwise. Huhne also registers his profound cynicism for the marriage tax break – no surprises there and he has a point that austerity should not pass over matrimony. The winter fuel allowance will be scrutinized to deliver value for money – despite the Tories’ promises to the contrary. Finally, changing economic circumstances may force George Osborne to alter his plan for deficit reduction – which is hardly an outrageous suggestion.

Huhne’s views on the deficit are sound – no wonder George Osborne rates him. His objection to curtailing universal benefit, implicit in his opposition to Jeremy Hunt, is more intriguing. Nick Clegg, who is to the right of Huhne (if such labels matter in the fluidity of coalition), is supportive of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms. Presumably then, Clegg is alive to the intellectual corollary of the limiting child benefit for the affluent middle classes: the government wants to coppice the welfare state into a welfare safety net. On the evidence of this interview, Huhne is in hinterland: in favour of limiting the winter fuel allowance for dowdy dames, but the welfare state is sacrosanct when it comes to children. The spending review has to have eradicated such internal tensions in the coalition.