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Winter fuel payments, broken promises, and the EU referendum

1 February 2013

6:11 PM

1 February 2013

6:11 PM

Another day, another confusing briefing about public spending. Yesterday Downing Street got itself into a lather over defence spending. Today it’s pensioner benefits.

The Independent’s story that the Lib Dems would only consent to further welfare cuts in the 2015/16 spending review if the Tories were prepared to cut pensioner benefits came up at the Number 10 Lobby briefing this morning. The Downing St spokeswoman said:

‘We’ve done an awful lot to help pensioners but, clearly, speaking generally there are some difficult decisions to be made and the Treasury is leading on the spending review for 2015/16. The Prime Minister stands by what he set out in the Coalition Agreement.

‘What was in the Coalition Agreement is for this Parliament but decisions beyond this Parliament have yet to be made.’

But shortly afterwards, the Number 10 Twitter account insisted that the benefits would be protected after all.

The Tories know that even if the pledge to protect those benefits was indeed a silly one, breaking it would have disastrous consequences for their popularity with pensioners, those ‘rottweilers on speed’, as Tony Blair called them. The Lib Dems’ experience with tuition fees has reinforced the importance of doggedly sticking to a silly promise until the next election.

I’ve written about why it was a silly promise that shouldn’t be repeated here, but that doesn’t mean the party should break it, and not just for the immediately obvious reason above. In 2015, the Conservatives will ask voters to trust them that they will get a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union by the end of the first half of the forthcoming parliament. The Lisbon Treaty debacle means the party has, in the language of a chat show, trust issues. It was for this reason that so many backbenchers wanted legislation in this parliament guaranteeing the referendum in the next. But because the party will only produce draft legislation, it needs to do everything it can to reassure voters that a promise is a promise. That means not breaking other pledges on completely unrelated matters, even if they were made in a panic.

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