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Could George Osborne be about to scrap the triple lock?

Ros Altmann wasn’t happy last month. After the shock resignation of Department of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, she launched an incredible rant against him online.

She accused IDS of silencing her as pensions minister and preventing her from advancing unspecified pensions policies. Adviser Lounge reported last year on the bubbling tensions between DWP and Altmann.

As a campaigner she has found the straitjacket of life as junior minister frustrating. She may blame IDS for this but really it is the dispiriting experience of many in lower ministerial ranks.

A couple of early missteps when she publicly pre-judged a tax relief consultation by condemning the pension Isa did not help either.

Altmann was contrasting herself with Steve Webb in the last parliament who had a unique freedom to develop policy and roam around.

This was down to his exceptional knowledge of the sector, good relationship with IDS, guarded media performances and, crucially, his status as the Liberal Democrat in DWP. It was also an era of uniquely frenetic activity in pensions policy. Webb’s position was never going to replicated in this parliament.

What now for pensions policy now IDS has sulked off to the backbenches? Listening to Altmann, you would think she is about to engage in a flurry of activity and implement everything her heart desires.

Nope. Her outburst has drawn surprise and condemnation among her fellow departmental ministers who admired IDS and have shown discipline in their roles. It has made others nervous about her loyalty and professionalism and will not have gone unnoticed in Downing Street or the Treasury.

More likely, pensions will remain the purview of the Treasury this parliament with tweaks – or possibly still an overhaul – of tax relief as the main priority.

The WASPI campaign to provide women born in the 1950s with compensation for state pension reforms are also hopeful they can make progress with IDS out of the way. This also seems unlikely due to the massive cost of billions required to meet their demands and the fact the pain has already begun with a new state pension in place.

The most important shift, and what has gone largely unnoticed as a key reason for IDS’ departure, is the emerging fightback against inter-generational unfairness and what that means for pensions policy.

IDS complained bitterly about cuts to disabled people being proposed at a time when pensioners were being showered with cash such as the gilded state pension triple lock.

He was particularly peeved about millionaire pensioners warming their fires with thousands of pounds in winter fuel allowance payments. Surely these could be cut to just the poorest families, even as a gesture if there is not much money to be saved.

This contrast between cuts for the young and working age welfare compared to protected pensioners was a core reason for IDS’ departure.

For six years, George Osborne’s political principle has been to shower pensioners in riches and watch the votes roll in.

We have seen that through 4% pensioner bonds in the run up to the 2015 election, protected benefits, rising state pensions, huge private protections and freedoms created. And it worked. It delivered a stunning Conservative majority last year.

But as welfare cuts begin to cut to the bone after six years of austerity that theory is being tested. Osborne has been forced to retreat on £4.4bn cuts to tax credits last year and now disability cuts this year.

It is getting harder and harder – perhaps impossible – to find low hanging fruit in the welfare budget without causing political chaos. But the deficit stubbornly remains and more cuts are needed, even if to fill the black hole caused by the reversal on disability cuts last month.

The door has been opened to cuts for pensioner entitlements. Notably the triple lock has not been enshrined into law but remains a mere commitment from this government.

The incredible cost of the policy – an outrageous extra £6bn a year, according to Treasury analysis – makes it ripe for reform.

Replacing the triple lock with a fairer way of increasing state pension rates, such as by inflation only, would be controversial.

Conservative MPs revolted against changes to pension tax relief last month and forced Osborne to scupper his plans. But the savings are huge from even small changes.

While Altmann may think she is about to be set free to splash the cash on WASPIs and others, she may be in for a shock.

The consensus to shower the old with goodies is falling apart so could George Osborne have the triple lock and pensioner benefits in his crosshairs?

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