One of the most significant things about David Cameron’s Sunday Times interview today was something he didn’t say. The Prime Minister made maintaining the triple lock for pensions for the next Parliament ‘the first plank of the next general election manifesto’, but he didn’t make any ‘read-my-lips’ promises about anything else related to those of pensionable age. Why not? Did this mean the Conservatives are going to drop their support for universal pensioner benefits such as the winter fuel payment and free bus passes? His interview on Marr suggested that this could well happen. Here is the transcript of the relevant exchange:
Andrew Marr: While we’re talking about life on benefits what about wealthier pensioners being able to pick up benefits for free television licences, free travel, winter fuel and so forth. Is that going to carry on forever?
David Cameron: Well I made a very clear promise before the last election that if I became Prime Minister I would keep in this Parliament…
AM: In this Parliament…
DC: I made a very clear promise. We’ve kept that promise. Incidentally I think it’s important to keep these promises, you know I’ve made promises.
AM: Will you make this promise again?
DC: We will set our plans at the next election in our manifesto. But I think, it is you know, just to make the point, you know, I made promises like delivering on our aid promises. We kept that promise.
This is important. The PM hasn’t rowed back from his May 2010 promise, partly because he has seen the damage sustained by Nick Clegg as a result of breaking a promise. This is why he took such pains today to emphasise that the Conservatives have stuck to their pledge. But since Labour announced that it would have to look at whether universal benefits are fair, Cameron doesn’t have the same fear of a political attack that he had in 2010: on this issue, Labour has made things much easier for the Conservatives.
But where Labour won’t make it easy for Cameron is on tax cuts. Michael Dugher was quick to release an aggressive response to the section of the interview on tax, saying ‘rather than helping hard-working families, David Cameron is again choosing to stand up for just a privileged few at the top’. What Cameron actually said was that his priority would be tax cuts for the lowest paid but that ‘we’ve set taxes to raise the revenue. That’s how you – you should set taxes to raise revenue, not to make a political point’. He is right: tax is a means of raising money for the operation of government, not a moral force that somehow civilises groups you don’t like. But Labour will clearly use the Prime Minister’s desire to lower the top rate as one of its key general election campaign attacks. The question is whether Cameron is better able to articulate why tax cuts at all levels are important than he was when the 50p rate was scrapped in the 2012 ‘omnishambles’ budget.