As the country approaches a general election, a party leader, desperate to reassure a key group of voters, makes a very silly pledge. He is as unequivocal as possible that, in spite of the big spending implications in a time of economic crisis, he will stick to this silly pledge to keep his target voters happy. Months later, a Coalition has formed, and those target voters are enraged because that promise turned out to be worth little more than the paper it was written on.
We all know that this is what happened with the Lib Dems and their extraordinarily stupid pledge to block rises in tuition fees. But in 2010, David Cameron also made a similarly silly promise, which was to protect universal benefits for older people, including the winter fuel payment, TV licences and free bus passes when he knew there would have to be a squeeze on welfare payments. He said in May 2010:
‘And let me say very clearly to pensioners if you have a Conservative Government your Winter Fuel Allowance, your bus pass, your Pension Credit, your free TV licence all these things are safe. You can read my lips, that is a promise from my heart.’
Nick Clegg, who has been muttering about this for months, made another push on pensioner benefits today in his speech to CentreForum, mentioning ‘looking again at universal benefits paid to the wealthiest pensioners’. He might have half an eye on the work Ed Davey has been doing on the subject, first reported on Coffee House. The Prime Minister’s spokesman didn’t wait around to quash this suggestion, saying this morning:
‘The Prime Minister made a commitment to protect those benefits and he believes in keeping his promises.’
But aside from this wonderfully catty side-swipe, there are other Conservatives who are in favour of a move away from universal benefits, including Robert Halfon and Nick Boles.