Houses in central London. Photograph: Paul Owen
Boris Johnson was today forced to row back to avert a political row with David Cameron after warning that he intended to block “Kosovo-style social cleansing” of poorer people from London as a result of the housing benefit cuts being introduced by the coalition.
The mayor of London became the most high-profile Conservative to express fears about the housing benefit changes as cross-party concern about the effect of the changes on the poor escalated.
Both Cameron and Nick Clegg made clear their distaste at Johnson’s decision to add his opinions to the growing dissent and refer to social cleansing in relation to the government’s policy.
Within hours of making the remarks, the mayor insisted he was quoted “out of context” and claimed that he did not agree with the “wild accusations” of “social cleansing” made by critics of the housing benefit cuts.
But this morning he had told BBC London: “What we will not see, and will not accept, is any kind of Kosovo-style social cleansing of London.
“On my watch, you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have been living and have put down roots.”
Despite the prime minister’s insistence that the measures would go ahead unamended, Johnson indicated today that he was in talks with Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, to press the case for a three-pronged plan to mitigate the impact on Londoners.
His comments came the day after Cameron told MPs that ministers would be “sticking to our policies” on this issue.
The prime minister was less than impressed with the outspoken Tory mayor, with a spokesman stating that Cameron did not agree with Johnson’s views or the way he had chosen to express them.
The spokesman said: “The prime minister does not agree with what Boris Johnson has said, or indeed the way he said it. He thinks the policy is the right one.”
Clegg said he “very strongly” disagreed with Johnson’s comments, but accepted there were particular problems in parts of London.
“In London, there are hotspots of very high property prices which create particular dilemmas and difficulties,” the deputy prime minister said.
“But I disagree with what Boris Johnson has said on the policy, and I certainly and very strongly disagree with the way in which he has expressed his views.”
Clegg was angered by similar comments made in the Commons earlier this week by Labour’s Chris Bryant.
After Bryant’s remarks, the deputy prime minister said the use of the term “cleansing” was “outrageous” and “deeply offensive to people who have witnessed ethnic cleansing”.
Housing and homelessness charities have said the housing benefit changes outlined by the chancellor, George Osborne, will have a big impact in urban areas with high rent levels – notably London.
The measures include a 10% cut from 2013 for those out of work for more than a year and an overall cap of £250 a week for a one-bedroom property, rising to £400 a week for a four-bedroom or larger home.
On top of this, the government is imposing a £500 cap on the total benefits a household can claim per week.
Johnson said it made “no economic sense” to force people who lived and worked in inner London out to the suburbs, adding that he did not want to see London’s poorest residents sent off to live to bed and breakfast accommodation on the south coast.
“The last thing we want to have in our city is a situation such as Paris, where the less well-off are pushed out to the suburbs,” he added.
“I’ll emphatically resist any attempt to recreate a London where the rich and poor cannot live together.”
Johnson subsequently issued a statement about his earlier reference to “social cleansing” by claiming he had been being quoted out of context.
Just hours after his comments on London radio, he said he believed the government was “absolutely right” to reform the “completely unsustainable” housing benefit system.
“I do not agree with the wild accusations from defenders of the current system that reform will lead to social cleansing,” he said.
“It will not and, if you listened carefully to what I said, no such exodus will take place on my watch.”
Johnson wants the coalition to pay housing benefit directly to landlords rather than to tenants, which he claims would help landlords to lower rents, and has asked for the planned transitional fund to protect families facing eviction to be increased from £20m to £30m next year. He is lobbying for at least 90% of the money to be earmarked for Londoners.
And he urged Duncan Smith to exempt families with children and those in work – which could cost the Treasury tens of millions of pounds.
The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, stepped up his party’s campaign against the housing benefit proposals as MPs debated the reforms this afternoon.
Miliband urged Lib Dem MPs to “vote with their consciences” against the coalition’s proposals and signalled his intention to force a Commons vote on the issue and exploit Lib Dem divisions to defeat the government.
In an interview with the Daily Mirror, the Labour leader said his Lib Dem colleagues “are honourable people. They are in politics for the right reasons. I hope they will vote with their consciences when it comes to issues like housing benefit”.
He said the coalition was “cutting the housing benefit of poor people in an unjustified way – they are going to potentially make people lose their homes. That is not what they [Lib Dems] came into politics for.”
The Conservative party hit back by releasing details of a comment made to MPs in 2008 by James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, in which he highlighted the need to reform the housing benefit system. Purnell, who quit government in 2009, said the then Labour government needed to look at working incentives “to ensure that there is fairness with regard to those who are working and those who are not, so that people on benefits do not end up getting subsidies for rents that those who work could never afford”.’
Alastair Campbell, the former Labour government spin doctor, wrote on his blog today that Cameron was likely to be “pretty angry” that the Kosovo analogy was made.
“Whether it was planned or not – live radio has a habit of getting a combination of both – it will have been felt in Downing Street, that much is for sure … felt as in ‘ouch,’ as if David Cameron didn’t have enough on his plate today what with a very tricky European summit,” he said.
“Take the Kosovo analogy to its logical conclusion, and Johnson is effectively putting his colleague and fellow Old Etonian/Bullingdon Club member into the same bracket as Slobodan Milosevic.”
He added: “If it was an accident, we simply add it to the list of over the top statements and gaffes from the gaffe-prone blundering Boris. If it was planned, then DC, we have a problem!”
The housing minister, Grant Shapps, said the government would go ahead with the benefit cap, which he predicted would lead to lower rents.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I don’t deny that some people may well need to move. Not tens of thousands – the impact assessment says there are about 17,000 people in London whom the cap would affect.
“Rather than some of the catastrophic predictions that have been made, what’s much more likely is that rents will start to fall.”
Labour’s London mayoral candidate, Ken Livingstone, called for the cap to be on rents rather than benefits, telling Today: “House prices in London are completely unreal. Therefore you have got to say this is a separate set of parameters. Either you cap the rents, which I would like to see, or you have got to say we are going to see thousands of people displaced from central London.
“We know that London councils are starting to make block bookings at bed and breakfasts along the south coast.”