The writer, former senior adviser to British Chancellors Philip Hammond and Sajid Javid, is a partner at Flint Global; he writes in a personal capacity
There’s a reason why, as Chancellor, George Osborne painted vivid images of those who “sleep a lifetime on the benefits”. Being tough on welfare allowed the Tories to pour billions into their deficit reduction plans while tapping into a public mood that thought benefits had become too generous under the previous Labor government.
Covid-19 means that Rishi Sunak’s chancellery will be, like that of Osborne, dominated by repairing public finances. He has indicated that he will use this week’s budget to start figuring out how he will approach this unenviable task.
In the short term, Sunak appears poised to extend the surge in universal credit it sparked when Covid hit. But before long, he will have to make a long-term strategic decision. He could borrow from his predecessor’s playbook and use the welfare budget to save money. Or he could use the pandemic to draw a line and argue the Tories for building a more generous safety net. He should do the latter, for two reasons.
First, the Conservative Party has a different political base than it did ten years ago. Since 2013, the proportion of conservative voters who think the benefit system is too generous more by half, according to YouGov. His electoral coalition now relies on whole swathes of working class voters in the North and Midlands.
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