Do Truss and Hunt dare to ditch pensions triple lock? 

‘U-turn on a U-turn’ sees ‘politically totemic’ pledge first set to be dropped then saved

Liz Truss in Downing Street
Downing Street had said Truss was ‘not making any commitments’ on government spending
(Image credit: Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

Liz Truss has declared her commitment to the pensions triple lock, a Conservative manifesto pledge in successive elections since 2010, despite rumours that she was set to renege on the promise.

Earlier this week, Downing Street said the prime minister was “not making any commitments” on government spending. Pushed on pensions specifically, a spokesperson said that reviewing the previous triple lock commitment was a “mutual decision” by Truss and the new Chancellor Jeremy Hunt, and it was their “agreed position” to prioritise economic stability.

But at a tumultous PMQs, Truss told MPs that she was “protecting the triple lock” after all, adding: “We have been clear in our manifesto that we will retain the triple lock. I am completely committed to it and so is the chancellor.”

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After a morning of front pages “screaming about the prospect of the state pension shrinking - and sending the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly out this morning to defend that - Truss has now about-turned again, back to where she was originally”, said the BBC’s political editor Chris Mason.

Describing it as a “U-turn on a U-turn”, The Guardian’s political editor Pippa Crerar tweeted that the chancellor’s “clenched jaw” suggested he wasn't quite so committed.

With today’s announcement that inflation has returned to over 10%, keeping the triple-lock means state pensioners would see a rise in their weekly payment from £185.15 to just over £200 in April 2023, “helping to alleviate some of the other pressures on their budgets during the cost-of-living crisis”, said The Guardian.

What do the papers say?

“It is not hard to see why” the chancellor was refusing to guarantee the triple lock, said The Times’s Oliver Wright and Steven Swinford. “If Hunt decided to raise pensions by average earnings rather than inflation it would save the Treasury £4 billion to £5 billion a year,” they added.

But news of the potential U-turn had not gone down well in the Conservative party heartlands. “Don’t dare go back on pensions triple lock” was the Daily Express’s front page as it claims Truss is “betraying” pensioners. “Millions face pain on pensions” was the Daily Mail splash.

The pensions triple lock “has been a central pillar in Tory policy towards the elderly for the last decade”, said The Telegraph, “appearing in successive Conservative election manifestos”. But with annual inflation growth hovering around double digits, well above wage growth which sat at 5.4% in August, this promise “would cost the government at a time when it is trying to reel back with tax cut reversals and spending cuts”, said the Financial Times (FT).

It would, though, “cause real hardship for some of the least well-off people in the UK and would be certain to trigger a political backlash”, said The Guardian’s economics editor Larry Elliott. In total, pensioners would be £471 a year worse off than they expected to be next April, and those who retired after 2016 will see their payments decrease by £614.

Senior pensions and retirement analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, Helen Morrissey, told the FT there will be many pensioners banking on this increase, especially after last year’s increase of just 3.1% “was rapidly swallowed up by rising inflation leaving many people struggling to cope”.

What next?

There remain serious doubts that the government would be able to push through any changes to the triple lock, given the serious disquiet among Conservative MPs.

Maria Caulfield, the Tory MP for Lewes, tweeted: “I will not be voting to end the pensions triple lock. Pensioners should not be paying the price for the cost of living crisis whether caused by the war in Ukraine or mini budgets.” MP for St Austell and Newquay Steve Double added: “Nor me”.

Others have cited that the decision to remove universal help with energy bills in April may mean the government can ill afford another blow to the pockets of pensioners in the same month. “A reduced pension rise, combined with a cut in help on energy bills, could be part of a ‘double whammy’ for millions of pensioners,” said former pensions minister Sir Steve Webb.

However, “it could be argued that it is unfair that pensioners should be protected from inflation while urging wage restraint on firms”, said The Times’s Wright and Swinford. “Against this, the triple lock is politically totemic.”

Indeed one Tory backbencher told the i news site: “They are joking. Who was it that voted for us last time? Brexiteers and pensioners. Sorry but it’s not going to happen.”

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Jamie Timson is the UK news editor, curating The Week UK's daily morning newsletter and setting the agenda for the day's news output. He was first a member of the team from 2015 to 2019, progressing from intern to senior staff writer, and then rejoined in September 2022. As a founding panellist on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast, he has discussed politics, foreign affairs and conspiracy theories, sometimes separately, sometimes all at once. In between working at The Week, Jamie was a senior press officer at the Department for Transport, with a penchant for crisis communications, working on Brexit, the response to Covid-19 and HS2, among others.