A sombre and muted PMQs this week. Dame Joan Ruddock raised the issue of benefits and asked David Cameron if he was proud of his new reforms. Tory backbenchers cheered on the PM’s behalf.
‘Then would he look me in the eye,’ Dame Joan went on, ‘and tell me he’s proud to have removed all disability payments from a 10-year-old with cerebral palsy.’
This tactic — the Super-Vulnerable Voter ploy — is highly manipulative and highly reliable. But Dame Joan had forgotten something which Mr Cameron is unlikely to forget. Explaining his reform of the Disability Living Allowance he glared angrily at her. ‘As someone who has had a child with cerebral palsy I know how long it takes to fill in that form.’ There was a touch of fury in his reddening cheeks as he finished his answer. Dame Joan sat down chastened.
Mr Howells, we learned, is a modern nomad who scurries around the Garden of England in his Nissan Pixo delivering parcels to the citizens of Kent. But he’s a victim of government tax-abuse. Unless he increases his workload from 20 to 24 hours a week he’ll lose his entire rebate. He’d be richer on the dole. And there’s more.
‘I’d love to work full-time,’ Mr Howells had said pointedly to the Labour leader.
That doubled Mr Cameron’s culpability. Not only had he messed up the new tax rules, he’d also failed to create the economic dynamism necessary for the ambitious Mr Howells to fulfil his destiny as a 40 hour-a-week delivery boy. However, the new system entitles couples to a full rebate provided they work 24 hours between them.
‘What about his wife?’ yelled Philip Hammond from the Treasury bench. Mr Miliband was ready for this. He straightened up and prepared to favour the house with a vintage display of self-righteousness.
‘What about his wife,’ he echoed, slowly, with a pitying shake of his head. And we all knew what was coming. We were about to receive some appalling biographical detail about Mrs Howells which explained why she was a stranger to the labour market. She was blind, perhaps, or epileptic. Or one-legged or bed-ridden. Or perhaps she cared for an elderly relative who fought in the Battle of Britain. Or maybe she was busy training for a cross-channel fund-raising swim to save her local orphanage from being converted into deluxe apartments for an oligarch’s harem of coked-up hookers.
But no, as it turned out, Mrs Howells was a regular mum with three school-age children and she couldn’t find work that fitted in with the call of parenthood.
Mr Cameron replied by addressing the principles. The cumbersome old tax regime, he said, had splurged out rebates in all directions. Even on MPs. He asked if it was fair that a worker earning £20,000 should fund Mr Miliband’s child benefit. Ignoring the question the Labour leader accused the PM of breaking his word. ‘It’s a question of trust.’ He flourished a quote from the last election which always goes down a storm in the chamber.
‘I’m not gonna flannel you,’ Mr Cameron had told one of those shirt-sleeve public meetings. ‘I’m gonna give it to you straight. I wouldn’t means-test child benefit. I don’t think it’s a good idea.’
The Labour benches loved that one. Not just because Mr Cameron’s street-slang sounds so bogus but also it because it allows them to ignore the underlying problem.
He set up an impenetrably zany pass-the-parcel routine of tax-grabs and state-refunds which ultimately aimed to funnel every penny of expenditure through Whitehall and make the government look like a drunken uncle handing out twenties at a wedding. We were all supposed to feel grateful. Instead we became grasping and suspicious.
Brown’s tax regime, left unchecked, would have turned into the state into a full-time luxury aid-programme. And the sole job of government would have been to administer a slow-motion riot as the masses scrambled to grab goodies they’d already paid for.
That was mad. Reform is essential. And Labour, even though they laugh, probably know it’s true.