As George Osborne was speaking to the Tory conference, I was heading for my second lesson with 20 youngsters who have gone through the education system without much success.
Their homework had been to come up with ideas for campaigns, things they wanted to change or fight for in the world around them.
Some of their ideas were unworkable. Some were obvious. Some were excellent. One was, potentially, brilliant. One was a straight-forward plea not to take away people’s benefits.
The good news for Mr Osborne is that a good few of the students had remembered from Lesson 1 who he was and what he did. The bad news is that they don’t trust him to deliver any change to benefits fairly. He shouldn’t take it personally. I’m not sure they would trust anyone to do it.
The girl who spoke in defence of her own mother’s benefits was one of four to make a short speech on the ideas that came forward, and she won the ‘best speech’ vote of her classmates on it. I also raised with her Osborne’s child benefit cut for high rate tax-payers and she immediately got the two sides of the argument, universality v the better off getting less.
She also got, as Osborne’s colleague Philip Hammond appeared to when he was ruling out child benefit cuts in the run-up to the election, that if they cut one, people start to worry what they cut next.
It is a big gamble by Osborne. The child benefit got the headlines because if affects more people, and they include the media who decide what gets reported. But if anything, the cap on benefits going into a single household could be more significant. To a nation constantly seeing headlines of families taking huge sums – which tend to be the exception but are portrayed as the norm – it would appear to be a no brainer. But once you wrap unemployment, housing and child benefit in a large family together, you reach Osborne’s max (small change to him) fairly quickly.
So the consequence will be to force those on high benefits further into the poorest areas, already the most challenged, with the highest rates of unemployment and deprvation.
Also absent from this debate is how the public sector cuts planned for later this month will impact on the benefits bill. It is so easy to talk of wiping out a quarter of a workforce. But where do they go? For many, onto the benefits bill Osborne has pledged to cut. Also absent is the impact of enormous cuts in infrastructure projects on the private sector. And again, what we saw from Osborne yesterday was a political strategy not a growth strategy.
He and David Cameron are banking on the economy coming good so they can say their cuts were in part responsible. They are hoping the public will at least part buy the argument they had to make them because of Labour’s mismanagement, and with the leadership election out of the way, Labour must do a far better job of explaining what nonsense that is. The Tories have had too easy a run on that. Instinctively the public know there were many international factors at play but the coalition do not miss a trick in putting all blame at Labour’s door, and Labour have been missing too many at pushing back.
Meanwhile, a warning from the classroom. The winning speaker warned that people might die as a result of major benefits cuts, as they would end up on the streets. Put down like that, it comes over as hyperbole. When she said it, it came over as a rather wise warning from someone who knows. And her classmates reacted in a way that suggests they may have a better instinctive feel on this than Mr O.