One important question for the new coalition – and anyone interested in policy – is just how far is either party now held to what was in their manifesto or their previous political commitments. Or is it now ground zero for everything?
Both parties have already given appreciable ground on previously cherished policies to form the coalition.
But in the run up to the election campaign David Cameron told pensioners “you have my word” that winter fuel payments, free bus passes and TV licences, along with the pension credit, would be protected.
At the Tory party conference, George Osborne promised to protect child benefit, citing to reporters afterwards all the classic arguments for it – that the state has an interest in the next generation, and that it should recognise for all the cost of raising children. He even displayed a knowledge of its history: that it provides a flat rate benefit that partly replaced a child tax allowance that was worth more to the better off.
Removing child benefit from the better off, or merging it with the means-tested child tax credit, is just one item on the menu of potential benefit savings that the Treasury has already drawn up for the new chancellor to consider. But does his party conference promise hold? Or does the arrival of a coalition mean literally everything can be rethought?
Back in 1980 when there was a similar need for big spending cuts, Geoffrey Howe, the then chancellor, proposed freezing the basic state pension. Patrick Jenkin, her then social security secretary, went to Cabinet armed with words – not from the manifesto but from an election broadcast made by Margaret Thatcher during the campaign – when she declared: “We will maintain the purchasing power of the pension”. Jim Prior, a leader of the “wets” in the new Thatcher cabinet, had gone equally armed with election leaflets from Geoffrey Howe and Sir Keith Joseph, which said the same thing. “That puts an end to that then, doesn’t it,” Prior said. And it did. Would it now?