MPs are debating that Cut With the Awkward Name, the Under-occupation of Social Housing: Housing Benefit Entitlement, also known by its opponents as the ‘bedroom tax’, this afternoon. I’ve already posted about some of the problems that this policy might throw up, however well-intentioned, but there’s also an important political point here.
When I talk to Tory MPs about this cut, some of them accept that there are problems with specific cases, and with the number of smaller homes that are actually available for people to move into (interestingly, one housing association has reclassified its properties so tenants can avoid being eligible for the cut), but what exercises them more is that the Coalition’s spinning machine hasn’t really moved at all on this cut. There was no attempt to sell this as a positive thing in the way that the Treasury did with the £26,000 benefit cap. The awkward long name was never badged into something those promoting the policy could explain quickly, and thus it left a vacuum for its opponents to throw their own name, the ‘bedroom tax’, in. This now means that it is difficult for David Cameron to refer to the cut without saying the words ‘bedroom tax’, thus reinforcing the idea that the cut is a bad thing. He tried hard not to use those words at PMQs today. This isn’t what the Prime Minister should really want to do, but his press machine has left him with little choice.
There was an interesting exchange between Robert Halfon and Damian McBride at the Public Administration Select Committee today which underlined this point. Halfon, who really is a master in badging up policies to make them sound appealing, asked McBride whether he thought the Downing Street machine today needs its own McBride:
Halfon: Just putting the negative stuff to one side that affected you in your last years, do you think Downing Street needs a Damian McBride?
McBride: It depends what, I don’t want to talk about myself in the third person, but it depends what kind of Damian McBride, what year I was working in.
In a positive sense, you need someone who is prepared to get on top of every single thing that’s going on and spot problems. I mean, to go back to, not to get into the issue that we’re were talking about that’s been on the front page of the Daily Mail for three days, but I don’t think anybody will be in any doubt that that story, which might be a terrible story anyway, has been made worse by the media handling and by people not sort of seeing the immediate problem coming down the pipe. I think this committee has reflected before, and Lord O’Donnell when he was before the committee recently, said well as far as I am concerned special advisers are a good thing, but special advisers when they’re briefing the media, they’re a bad thing. And I don’t think you can see the two as separate, because if you are not paying attention to the sort of potential media problems, just potential problems, but if the media is going to light on them then you know that they are big problems, you’re not paying attention to those then it doesn’t give you the space, the freedom and almost the momentum in some ways to concentrate on your big picture items…
The frustration on the Tory benches is that there wasn’t this sort of scanning ahead taking place from the introduction of the regulations on this benefit cut to its implementation. What they want is someone a bit more like McBride, with aggression to fight a story. And even those who are very loyal to Cameron wish that when he does announce a policy that is very easy to sell indeed, there isn’t the aggressive media follow-up that they’d hope for.