John Woodcock: Blue-sky thinking is a risky tactic

David Cameron took to the stage this week to speculate about what he might like to do on welfare in the future, rather than the more usual practice of announcing an agreed programme for change.

John Woodcock: Blue-sky thinking is a risky tactic
John Woodcock: Blue-sky thinking is a risky tactic

Taking time out for such high profile blue-sky thinking is a risky tactic for a Prime Minister, particularly at a time when the public is demanding real and immediate action to get out of recession. The enduring response of many will no doubt have been: 'Well, you're in charge - stop musing and get on with it.'

Voters are smart enough to understand that fully worked up proposals cannot be fished ready made out of a box, and are used to seeing possible future policies floated and stress-tested before being written in stone.

But equally, they demand grip and direction from the guy at the top and may have little interest in a sudden post-election wish-list so far from polling day.

Number 10 no doubt believed that the potential downsides were outweighed by the benefit of Cameron associating himself with ideas that will chime, it hopes, with the working majority's instinct for cuts to the welfare bill.

But Team Cameron may have miscalculated in two important ways. Firstly, the responsibility of office has probably ended the days when he could pop up, make a splash with a few choice words, then move on. Opposition leaders have more freedom to do that; prime ministers usually do not because they are expected to follow through on what they have said.

Secondly, welfare reform is an issue where political rhetoric has far outstripped reality. For decades, ministers have over-hyped the latest reform to benefits, usually reflecting a genuine if misplaced faith that they will deliver radical change. But the weary and dissatisfied constituency Cameron is trying to court have so far perceived little positive difference in a system they believe continues to reward others unfairly at their expense.

All that could combine to leave the PM paying a long-term price for a day of eye-catching headlines.

John Woodcock is Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and a former spokesman for ex-prime minister Gordon Brown.

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