Labour MP Sharon Hodgson was given short shrift from the prime minister today when she asked David Cameron whether the following statement was true:
The problem is policy is being run by two public school boys who don’t know what it’s like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can’t afford it for their children’s lunchboxes. What’s worse, they don’t care either
The prime minister told the MP for Washington and Sunderland West to celebrate the fact Nissan is building a new car in Britain rather that focusing on “whatever nonsense” she had read out.
That “nonsense” actually came from his own benches in the form of the rebellious and outspoken Nadine Dorries – she made the comments to my colleague Kiran Stacey this week when asked to discuss child benefit. Hers is not a lone voice: Mark Pritchard, MP for the Wrekin, also made similar remarks to the FT about the prime minister a few days ago.
He talks a lot about social mobility but in reality he knows nothing about it. Empathy is better than sympathy in politics and it is impossible for him to empathise with people struggling to pay their gas bill or put shoes on the feet at the start of the school term. He has never wanted for anything and that is a problem with the electorate.
It is easy for No. 10 to just brush it off as the whingeing of tricky backbenchers, but underlying it is a broader debate on whether or not the leadership is out of touch with their voters. The Treasury is adamant that removing child benefit from higher taxpayers is supported by 70 per cent of the electorate, but how is it playing out with constituents in The Wrekin and the Mid-Bedfordshire where Pritchard and Dorries hold seats?
Moving away from the concept of universal benefits to one in which the wealthy have to pay for those less well off has unnerved the home counties and traditional set: the planned child benefit cut was one of the main concerns raised at a meeting between George Osborne and the 1922 backbench committee a couple of weeks ago.
One backbencher said:
There is a lot of unhappiness among the parliamentary party over this. It hits hardworking families, the squeezed middle and it is going to resonate with lots of our voters.
Cameron today said he was sticking to his guns on child benefit, he has after all made it his mission to ensure that his party is not seen to be balancing the books on the backs of the poorest.
The prime minister has obviously calculated that it is worth irritating your supporters in order to reach out to the lower income families – women in the C2 socio-economic group have deserted the party in droves since the election. But as Dorries and Pritchard’s comments show, the Cameron Eton curse is once again returning – and this time from his own people rather than the opposition benches. He should bear it in mind when he takes a decision on whether to scrap the 50p rate in the Budget.