Peter Hoskin

The pros and cons of tweaking the housing benefit cuts

The pros and cons of tweaking the housing benefit cuts
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It says a lot about the Lib Dems that a meeting between their party leader and deputy leader can throw up so many policy differences. When Nick Clegg and Simon Hughes chatted behind closed doors yesterday, the latter sought concessions over the coalition's housing benefit cuts – the cuts that Clegg then had to defend in the House. This morning, it was reported that he might just get some of them, even though Downing St are denying the story.

Regardless of the outcome, the situation is reminiscent of the child benefit cut for higher-rate taxpayers. A policy was announced, only for the coalition to start pulling back from it in the face of both internal and external opposition. Yes, in that case, the cut remains – but only after David Cameron claimed that its inherent anomalies would be ironed out, in time, and dusted off the marriage tax break for the party faithful.

In many respects, this is a symptom of mature government. Just as politicians should be able to argue their case, they should also be prepared to listen to the counterarguments and make concessions accordingly. And in the case of housing benefit there are, to my mind, some strong challenges being issued against the coalition's policy.

Yet this isn't to say that a post facto debate over cuts is ideal. For starters, it leaves ministers backing policies that might then be diluted or retracted only weeks later (see: Clegg yesterday). And it also bares the inner frictions of the coalition for all to ogle and exploit. When it comes to the longevity of this broad band of politicians, some Tories might prefer it if Simon Hughes's victories weren't accompanied by headlines of "government U-turns".