The axe is hovering over the £2.7bn winter fuel payments. But cutting this bung to the over-60s is harder than it seems. Even if Osborne decided, say, to pay out £600m less than Gordon Brown, it would make no contribution at all to cutting the deficit.
How so? The Labour wheeze was to top-off the winter fuel payment with a one-off bonus each year, which was presented as a Gordon’s munificent Christmas gift. Last year it amounted to £600m. The Budget books doesn’t expect this bonus to be repeated, so the future winter fuel payments are only scored as £2.1bn in 2010, not the £2.7bn actually spent in 2009.
The dilemma for Osborne is:
– Find an extra £600m from savings or increasing debt to pay out as much as Brown in 2009, or
– Take the political hit from withdrawing £50 off all pensioners (and £100 off all those over 80), without any upside in terms of deficit reduction.