As published on Conservative Home:
Nobody should underestimate how hard it is to resign from a senior post in politics. The decision is incredibly painful. You know that you are going to trade away your career, your reputation and your future, all in pursuit of a principle. You will be vilified by your opponents, by the media, and sometimes by your own Party leadership. And because it is clear from the start that all these things are going to happen, you do not do it lightly. I know, I have been there.
So the idea that Iain Duncan Smith took the dramatic step of resigning to gain some imaginary advantage in the Brexit debate is frankly laughable. And so is the sight of the spinmeisters of Downing Street accusing IDS of being anything other than straightforward. The kettle calling the pot black comes to mind.
But that is the Government briefing machine being its normal self. Vitriolic, Blairite ad hominem attacks are the norm. No explanation is too convoluted, no reasoning too obscure, other than the truth – because that is too embarrassing. Indeed, anyone seeing Iain Duncan Smith on Andrew Marr at the weekend could not doubt his sincerity and his passion for his job, or indeed the real sacrifice involved in giving it up. And Pritti Patel, on yesterday’s Pienaar’s Politics, witnessed from close quarters what a committed social reformer IDS is.
The truth is fairly simple.
For six years, there has been a longstanding struggle between Iain Duncan Smith and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. On the one hand, IDS has been pursuing the moral mission that has consumed him for the last ten years of his life. He believes that the people at the bottom of society have been dealt a poor hand in life, be it because of broken homes or bad schools, and that it is the duty of the Government to help them pick themselves up and put them on the escalator of self-help, work and independence. He is not dewy-eyed about it. In general terms, he feels that the welfare bill is too big, but that there are ways of reforming it without crushing the spirits of the most poor and vulnerable in society.
On the other hand, there is the Treasury view that the Government’s main aim must be elimination of the deficit – but, again, not any cost. For the Chancellor and the Prime Minister there are sectors of government that cannot be subject to the battle against waste, because the politics are too difficult. Most obvious is International Development. As a result the savings in spending are concentrated on a few departments. This can be agonising. Saving a few billion out of over £700 billion is not so hard; saving it out of tax credits in one year, or PIP, or any other working age benefit, is excruciating.
This is what Duncan Smith has faced time and again from the Treasury. As it tried to balance the books, it has looked around – and lit upon the welfare budget. This is unsurprising, as it is huge, at over £222 billion. But IDS has been faced, over and again, with multi-billion pound short term demands that could only have been delivered on the backs of the working age poor.
This was at its most publicly obvious during the general election when the Prime Minister and Chancellor insisted that there would be £12 billion of savings from the welfare budget, but would not specify from where – whilst at the same time ruling out touching the winter fuel allowance, free travel and subsidised TV licenses for the wealthy pensioners. Even as a vote-garnering exercise this was unwise, as many better-off retired people understand, only too well, that their unnecessary financial subsidies may come at the expense of their own children. This short-sighted attempt to buy votes was storing up the disaster that we have just witnessed. Eventually, Duncan Smith was inevitably going to call a halt to penalising the poor with a morally dubious set of priorities.
We should recognise that the Omnishambles Budget, the tax credits debacle, and the PIP problem are all symptoms of a problem in this Government’s decision-making process – a problem that will cause difficulties for both the country and the Conservative Party if it is not resolved.
When we were in Coalition, one of the great hidden constitutional changes that took place was the replacement of Cabinet collective decision-making by the so-called “Quad”. David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander decided on all the key issues of government before these were even presented to the Cabinet, thereby circumscribing its power. Since the election there has been no quad – but neither has there been a return of power to Cabinet.
The Conservative leadership has been criticised on many occasions for being too narrowly based. But in some ways the “Posh Boys” attack misses the point. In truth, this criticism bites not because of the issue of class – which is how it is very often couched – but because it narrows the range of experience and background that is brought to bear on the most difficult issues. A lack of diversity of insight leads to lack of wisdom in government. With difficult matters such as welfare reform, this is particularly important.
So it is vital that we see a more serious commitment to Cabinet government. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have to devolve more power and control to their Cabinet colleagues if we are going to see the improvement in the quality of government that is now plainly necessary. For example, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the excellent Stephen Crabb, has rightly been praised for having built his career up from a very lowly background. That will be of no value, however, if he is not allowed the right to develop a welfare strategy that will meet the needs of the poor as well as the demands of the Treasury.