Nick Clegg’s attack on universal benefits such as the winter fuel payment and free bus passes this afternoon was a nice little morsel of red meat to his party, as he said it would be ‘difficult to explain’ a failure to reform these payments when other benefits are being slashed. He told the World at One:
‘My own view is for the future that it would be very difficult to explain – and it would be quite interesting if you could ask the Labour party for this, because they appear to be saying that at a time when people’s housing benefit is being cut, we should protect Alan Sugar’s free bus pass.’
But I’ve just had a chat with Lord Oakeshott, who is impatient that the Lib Dems should be looking at this sort of thing while they are in government rather than discussing their next manifesto. He asks ‘why aren’t we fighting for it now?’ He also thinks that the time has come for David Cameron to have a totemic tuition fees-style moment and start cutting into those universal benefits right away:
‘I’ve been raising these questions about winter fuel payments going to people who don’t need them, whether they are sipping Sangria in the sun in Seville or people like me in their 60s with good jobs: why at least should these not be taxed? Nick has bravely taken hits for the coalition team on tuition fees and the NHS, for example, why on earth can’t David Cameron at least accept that if we’re all in it together, rich pensioners in good jobs should take the hit too? Why aren’t we fighting for fairness on well-off pensioners’ perks now rather than waiting for 2015?’
This would involve Cameron U-turning on the read-my-lips moment when he promised the coalition would safeguard these payments before the 2010 election. It depends whether Clegg fancies a fight or not on this, but Oakeshott is clearly keen for a scrap and suspects there is some traction on this. For the longer-term, the party will start appointing the MP to lead its 2015 manifesto writing in the next few months, and I suspect that another attempt to reform the payment will be at least considered. I reported a few months back that Ed Davey was considering paying the benefit as a lump sum to enable claimants to insulate their leaky homes, rather than much of the current money escaping out of poorly insulated lofts and windows.