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Anxious Tories Warn Tinkering With Pensions Risks Major Electoral Backlash

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt (Alamy)

5 min read

Senior Conservative MPs are anxious of calls to revise the government's pension policy and warned that any move to modify the pensions triple lock would further hinder their chances at the next general election.

One former secretary of state told PoliticsHome they had raised their concerns about any vulnerability around pensions directly with Downing Street after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to commit to guaranteeing the triple lock beyond the next general election earlier this week.

"They [government] risk arousing a lot of opposition for not a lot of gain," they said.

Another senior Conservative said any perceived wavering on the triple lock would "not help" the party's prospects at the next general election, which according to opinion polls the Labour Party is currently very likely to win. "He [the Prime Minister] can't afford to keep having battles," they said.

Nervous Tory backbenchers now want the government to clarify its position on the triple lock. While some Conservative MPs privately acknowledge that there is a strong economic case for reforming the state pension, reducing the amount of money given to retired people would be a politically high-risk move for the party, with elderly people having long been a core voter group for the Tories.

But Tory hostility towards revising the triple lock is not unanimous. One former Cabinet minister said some Conservative MPs were underestimating how understanding elderly voters would be if ministers decided to tweak the formula determining how much money they received. 

“Old people have children and grandchildren," they told PoliticsHome.

The triple lock guarantees that the state pension will rise in line with whatever is highest out of average earnings, inflation or 2.5 per cent. At 8.5 per cent, the rise in average earnings is the highest metric as thing stand, but there is concern within government that this would cost too much money. According to Bloomberg, one option being looked at as a way of reducing the cost would be to remove the impact of one recent one-off bonuses for public sector workers from government calculations, which would result in pensions rising by 7.8 per cent, rather than 8.5 per cent, saving the Treasury millions of pounds as a result.

Mel Stride, the secretary of state for work and pensions, fuelled speculation that the government could alter how future pension increases are decided when he told ITV on Tuesday that the triple lock was ultimately unsustainable.

"In the very, very, long-term, if you have an arrangement like the triple lock that keeps ratcheting up pensions by the highest of three different metrics - it seems to me that it does become unsustainable in the long-term," he said. 

"But we're not in the very long-term, we're in today. We have a commitment to it." 

At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Sunak once again refused to commit to guaranteeing the triple lock beyond the next general election. Instead, the PM pointed to the steps previous Conservative governments had taken to protect pensions. 

“This is the party that introduced the triple lock. This is the party that has delivered a £3,000 increase in the state pension since 2010," Sunak told MPs. 

“It’s also the party that ensured there are 200,000 fewer pensioners living in poverty today and this winter ensuring that pensioners get an extra £300 alongside their winter fuel payment to support them through the challenging times of inflation.

“So our track record is clear: there is one party in this House that has always stood up for our pensioners and that is the Conservative Party."

Following PMQs, Sunak's press secretary said ministers are "committed" to the triple lock at the moment, but did not confirm whether the pledge would remain after the next election.

 "The government is committed to the triple lock, you just got the PM’s words in the chamber," they said. 

A Downing Street spokesperson emphasised that Stride was talking about the “very, very long term" in his remarks about the future of the triple lock.

One Conservative MP said they were unconvinced that ministers would commit to changing the pension system ahead of the next general election, which must take place by the end of 2024. They said they believed that No. 10 was floating the possibility of tweaking the policy to guage reaction. 

"The government are not going to do anything. They are just flying the kite to see what the ground swell is like," they told PoliticsHome.

Young Conservative grassroots groups welcomed suggestions that the government could tweak the triple lock, arguing that the current policy unfairly benefits elderly people while younger age groups are hit by the cost of living crisis.

Liv Lever, Director of Blue Beyond think tank said: "During a cost of living crisis Blue Beyond members are feeling the pressure of rising prices, with most failing to have enough money to save for their own pensions. We urge the Conservative Party to consult with younger members about the sustainability and fairness of the state pension."

A spokesperson for Next Gen Tories told PoliticsHome: "When living standards are squeezed and taxes are at a post-war high, Conservatives have to be fiscally responsible. It is time to replace the triple lock with an approach that reflects the economic conditions we face".

Additional reporting by Caitlin Doherty.

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