UK Politics

Analysis: George Osborne's Philpott gamble

George Osborne
Image caption George Osborne is targeting his message at hard-pressed taxpayers

Chancellor George Osborne chose his words carefully when he was asked about Mick Philpott on an official visit to Derby.

But it was clear the Tories' chief election strategist was happy to link the shocking case of a man convicted of killing six of his children with the need for far-reaching changes to the welfare system.

"I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state, and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state, subsidising lifestyles like that.

"And I think that debate needs to be had," said Mr Osborne.

He certainly succeeded in provoking a debate.

The shadow chancellor Ed Balls accused Mr Osborne of "desperate and cynical" remarks that were offensive to millions of British people who happen to claim benefits.

Lib Dem MP, Sarah Teather, a former education minister, accused him of making a crude political point out of the tragic deaths of six young children.

And now Treasury Chief Secretary, Lib Dem MP Danny Alexander, has said there should be a debate about the future of the welfare system but the Philpott case was an "individual tragedy" and the two should not be connected.

Mr Osborne knows he is taking a gamble.

Perverse incentives

Some voters will see his remarks as the callous exploitation of a particularly appalling case.

But many others will read the details of the tens of thousands of pounds in benefits which supported Mick Philpott's unusual and work-free lifestyle and feel that the current system is unfair.

Mr Osborne says he has the majority of the public on his side in his efforts to bring down the UK's welfare bill and clearly believes it is legitimate to use this case to highlight the perverse incentives in the system.

The Chancellor steered clear of questions about the headline in Wednesday's Daily Mail, the day after Philpott's conviction, which described the killer as a "Vile Product of Welfare UK".

Aides insist there is no question of Mr Osborne "shooting from the hip", or making up policy on the back of one case, as some critics have claimed.

They point out that efforts to overhaul the welfare system began long before Philpott was convicted.

The £26,000 cap on the total amount of benefits many households can receive, was announced in Mr Osborne's first budget in 2010 and came into force this week.

Labour though want to use the whole episode to portray the chancellor as a brutal Tory, out-of-touch with the struggles of many families across the country.

Lying on sofa

Their gamble is that the public will turn against a man using one case to justify sweeping benefit cuts.

But some on the left have their doubts.

In The Times, Tony Blair's former speech-writer Philip Collins says that when focus groups are asked to come up with an image that encapsulates the Labour Party they come up with a man lying lazily on the sofa.

He says this could be the week in which the coalition began to speak to the British public whilst Labour slunk back onto the sofa.

It is too early to make that judgement yet, but Labour does now face a challenge to come up with its own welfare policies.

The big changes to taxes and benefits are only coming into force this month.

The real test will come when voters come to terms with the changes on the daily lives - rather than hearing of the bizarre life and appalling crimes of one particular claimant.

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