Brian Monteith: Iain Duncan Smith exposes Tory government weakness

Iain Duncan Smith said that he had quit the Cabinet over plans in George Osborne's Budget to cut benefits for the disabled. Picture: Getty Images
Iain Duncan Smith said that he had quit the Cabinet over plans in George Osborne's Budget to cut benefits for the disabled. Picture: Getty Images
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FAR FROM being a Brexit ploy, resignation was a matter of principle in face of Osborne’s tactics, writes Brian Monteith

The shock resignation of Iain Duncan Smith as Cabinet Secretary for Work and Pensions has turned much of the received wisdom about him upside down. That’s not a bad thing for it was mostly wrong in the first place.

As a champion of welfare benefit reform, Duncan Smith is undoubtedly one of the most disliked Tories in government, challenged for the annual “most hated” Oscar only by the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove.

Now Duncan Smith has resigned because he can no longer support the manner in which George Osborne and David Cameron are, in general, seeking to cut welfare benefits while cutting taxes for the wealthy – and in particular, using disability benefit reform as a way to find £1.3 billion of savings. The former hate figure has now become the defender of the weak and innocent and, if you look a little deeper, has apparently been arguing against Treasury demands for practically the last year.

Anyone who watched the Duncan Smith interview on the Andrew Marr Show would be hard pressed to deny he was anything other than passionate about social justice and reforming the UK’s welfare system so that people are given fresh chances in life and are able to better themselves by being helped to find work. If his words had been coming from a Labour, Liberal Democrat or SNP politician nobody would have blinked. But this is a man of the so-called hard right who overturns the stereotypes by being more concerned and sincere than most on the left I have heard.

Any notion that his resignation was motivated by a desire to undermine the Prime Minister and so help the other political passion in his life, the UK leaving the EU, makes no sense. Were that his plan then Duncan Smith would more likely have involved his junior minister Priti Patel also resigning and we would not have expected Gove to defend the Prime Minister as he has done over the weekend. He might also be expected to say we would be better using the net cost of £12 billion we give to the EU each year be used to avoid welfare benefit cuts – but he didn’t.

Now that the chronology of events is beginning to surface, anyone who studies the detailed working of political offices, or simply watches House of Cards or West Wing, can see that IDS has resigned because he was being hung out to dry. Downing Street was making him the bad cop arguing for disability benefit cuts – when he was in fact the good cop at war with the Treasury.

Whatever one thinks of Duncan Smith’s policies in achieving welfare reform (and let us remember it was Labour that first introduced the so-called “bedroom tax”), it cannot be doubted that he believes that welfare benefits are a necessary prerequisite for a civilised country. He has articulated repeatedly that benefits should not only provide a safety net for people less fortunate than the majority of us, but should also be designed to help the unemployed return to work rather than be trapped on benefits for the rest of their lives by disincentives and penalties that make it costly to seek employment.

When the Conservatives won the general election in June , George Osborne introduced a new arbitrary cap on the welfare budget that was tighter than previously and immediately undermined the ability of Duncan Smith’s department to deliver welfare reform. While controlling the welfare budget was always meant to deliver savings, it was also about designing an efficient and equitable system that worked. By making people more self-reliant and able to return to work without financial penalty, lasting savings would be delivered.

Instead the reforms were now driven by financial targets from the Treasury, the outcome being the Department of Work and Pensions was, more than ever before, no longer in control of its own policy but directed by the Treasury. It was this unaccountability that led directly to the recent debacle over working tax credits – a bean counting initiative that began and ended in Downing Street.

Unfortunately as Osborne’s forecasting became more and more unreliable so those targets were to become increasingly more demanding.

The Friday before the Budget Duncan Smith’s department was told by the Treasury it needed plans for saving £1.3bn from disability benefits, or an equivalent amount elsewhere. These proposals were produced but to be put out to consultation and not to be published at the same time as the Budget. Nevertheless, Osborne included them in Wednesday’s Budget and then called upon Duncan Smith to start defending them more vigorously.

By Thursday night Downing Street was going soft on them and was actively briefing that they could be amended or even withdrawn. The only person left defending them was Duncan Smith – who had not wanted them in the first place. This was the breaking point. He had been loyal to the government and both Cameron and Osborne but now they were making him look the cold callous cabinet member, and they the pliable and amenable types open to persuasion.

Throughout his time at Work and Pensions, Duncan Smith had been arguing against Osborne and the Treasury that the burden of welfare cuts be more evenly spread and that sacred cows – such as wealthy pensioners who receive universal benefits without tax liability – make their own contribution. Why, he constantly asked, should young working people on low pay bear so much of the cost? He was being painted as the ogre while others were being portrayed as caring and compassionate.

It is to avoid a full-blown debate about welfare reform and the manner in which Downing Street government is conducted that the line went out that IDS had resigned to cause trouble for the prime minister and help the Brexit campaign. The pensions minister, Baroness Altmann, ennobled by Cameron and until recently a Labour Party member, had a vested interest in avoiding any prospect of pensions benefit reforms and turned on her former boss.

The Cabinet is unravelling because Osborne’s methods of constructing Budgets is unravelling. The Duncan Smith resignation is not so much a game-changer for Cameron or the Brexit debate, but it is for the prospect of Osborne ever becoming prime minister.

• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain