Paddy Ashdown's defiance over benefits cap causing 'headaches' for Nick Clegg

Lord Ashdown's public defiance of benefits cap plans is causing 'headaches' for Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg.

Paddy Ashdown: takes on coalition over benefits cap
Paddy Ashdown: takes on coalition over benefits cap
Ashdown’s opposition comes as the Government faces a crushing defeat in the House of Lords today over plans to cap the total benefits paid to a single household.

George Hutchinson, head of public affairs at Burson-Marsteller, said Ashdown’s stance was causing headaches for Clegg as he tries to push through coalition welfare reform plans. However, he did not believe it would halt the welfare proposal.

‘Although this presents an internal party management headache for Nick Clegg, the two main parties clearly believe that the general public is foursquare behind action to reduce the total amount that any one household can claim. So it's extremely unlikely that this particular welfare proposal will be withdrawn.’

This is the first time Ashdown has vowed to vote against the coalition, something Jo-ann Robertson, MD of public affairs and corporate comms at Ketchum Pleon, said could open the floodgates for other senior Liberals to ‘speak out’ against policies they do not agree with.

‘Paddy Ashdown has been a staunch supporter of Nick Clegg in the coalition. This public display of opposition could give other senior Liberals the confidence to speak out against policy areas they are uncomfortable with.’

Robertson also predicted that the coalition could face ‘another embarrassing U-turn’ after going public with a policy without getting ‘their house in order’.

She said: ‘As with previous policies, the coalition does not appear to have got their house in order before going public – which ultimately means they could face another embarrassing U-turn.’

Nick Williams, head of public affairs at Fleishman-Hillard London, believes this could lead to Liberal Democrat ‘big beats’ using the House of Lords ‘as a safe way to send messages to Downing Street’.

He said: ‘Paddy Ashdown's intervention is the first of many lines to be drawn in the sand from Liberal Democrat big beats who will use the House of Lords as a safe way to send messages to Downing Street. Clegg can use the Lib Dems in the House of Lords to communicate these issues and circumvent the coalition.’

The plans, which cap working-age benefits to £500 a week, or £26,000 a year, have promoted critics to urge the Government to exempt child benefit from the cap, claiming that 100,000 children will be plunged into poverty.

Critics, including Church of England bishops, have urged a rethink and that child benefit should be exempt from the cap. In response Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has urged those opposed to think about ‘those who pay taxes while some unemployed people live in large houses at public expense’ and stated that the public is ‘overwhelmingly in favour’ of the cap.

He said: ‘It's not about punishing them, it's about saying – look, if you live in a house that you couldn't afford if you were in work, then you're disincentivised from taking work.’

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