Welfare cuts: the Conservative communications challenge

It’s a bit like a maths equation: Conservatives plus General Election win equals public spending, and therefore welfare, cuts.

There was a certain inevitability about further cuts to the welfare state when it emerged that David Cameron would be keeping the keys to Number 10. The Tories had, after all, never shied away from the fact there would no sudden change in economic course if they were re-elected. And with the welfare state and benefits being a major source of expenditure, the Department for Work and Pensions was always going to be at the top of the Chancellor’s list for reduced expenditure.

Even the scale of the planned cuts, some £12 billion, has come as little of a surprise. But that doesn’t reduce the difficulty the Conservatives will likely have in selling the necessity of further cuts to the electorate. They are effectively pedaling uphill.

The arguments for cuts are so well used that Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne and David Cameron could turn up to press conferences with a tape recording of them. It’s better to have people in work than unemployed. People should be incentivised to work, if not by the carrot then by the stick. And while there is logic to these arguments, opposition to them is equally committed. So while the Government might be acting out of fiscal necessity in cutting the welfare budget (or ending the benefits “merry-go-round” as the Prime Minister put it), they will have an enormous challenge ahead of them in carrying through their reforms without reducing their electoral chances in 2020.

This is where the Government communications machine isn’t helping itself. Political strategists will doubtless have concluded that revealing the details of planned cuts might both breach protocol for the Budget announcement and give opponents more time to mobilise and act. But by announcing the scale but not content of the planned cuts, ministers have put themselves in the position of being attacked on two fronts, the second of which is transparency. The Government’s job is then complicated further by allowing opponents time to speculate on what the cuts might be and how they’ll affect families (those with two children could lose out by £1,690 a year, according to the Resolution Foundation).

If that wasn’t enough, then the newspapers have today carried claims that the Conservatives could be about to change the way child poverty is measured. While there might be valid reasons for doing so, there’s at least in a hint in many of the reports that it could be a case of government obfuscation similar to efforts to show defence spending at the two percent of GDP target set by NATO.

The sum is that the Conservative press machine will have to address further suggestions they’re the ‘nasty party’. Whether they are or not.