The five things about Iain Duncan Smith's resignation you need to know on Saturday March 19, 2016…
1) HOW SOON IS NOW
“As they say, politics is war without the death…” That’s what Iain Duncan Smith once told me during an interview in his ministerial office. It was said without drama and with a deadpan twinkle in his eye. But today after his own act of war on his own Government, it’s George Osborne’s political death that looms large.
Anyone visiting IDS’s huge office in the charmless office block that is the DWP was struck by how much he’d turned it into a battle-hardened empire of his own. On his wall, the longest-serving Tory Work and Pensions Secretary had huge oil paintings of seabattles.
Crucially, there was a sketch of one of his ancestors, Admiral Adam Duncan, who defeated the Dutch fleet in the Battle of Camperdown in 1797. Duncan was “not an ostentatious man at all”, IDS pointed out, but managed to cope with a mutiny within his ranks and used his guile to outwit a bigger enemy. “Nelson always said that it was he who had taught him more about tactics than anyone else. He’s one of the forgotten naval heroes of the Napoleonic war.”
IDS’s mutiny late on Friday night was ultimately a protest against the tactical, short-termist, cheeseparing nature of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Duncan Smith saw his own position as a genuinely strategic, long-term programme of reform. And given his years-long war of attrition with the Treasury it was only a matter of time before something gave.
2) STILL ILL
Duncan Smith’s mantra over the years was that his mission to reform welfare was ‘not about saving money, it’s about saving lives’. In fact, as the Treasury point out, that’s not strictly accurate. IDS wanted to save money AND save lives. He himself often said that ‘the number one priority of the economy’ had to govern the last Coalition, and was as determined as anyone else to get value for money.
Yet ever since 2010, he has fought with Osborne over repeated attempts to take big lumps out of the welfare budget. Every Budget and Autumn Statement saw the Treasury pirates, knives in their mouths, ready to board the good ship DWP and raid its treasure. Many times, Captain Smithy saw them off as Downing Street’s Admiral of the Fleet hoved into view to sort out yet another skirmish,
I know of at least two - and there are rumoured to be four in total - resignation letters IDS had written to Cameron before yesterday, each a protest over cuts plans that had the effect of Osborne and No.10 backing off. The last time was at the height of the tax credits cuts row, when he told a colleague ‘I have it in my pocket’, before managing to get Osborne to abandon moves to taper Universal Credit as his alternative.
But it is the disabled, and the Personal Independence Payments cuts, that were the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Allies of IDS say he knew the reforms needed careful handling but was boxed into a corner by a Treasury desperate for savings for its own Welfare Cap gimmick that had been aimed (tactically again) at forcing Labour onto the defensive over benefits spending. PIP savings were not meant to be in this Budget, the claim goes. More widely, he felt Osborne and Cameron should have tackled pensioners’ benefits to prove we genuinely ‘are all in this together’.
Cameron’s own letter - ‘we collectively agreed, you, No.10 and the Treasury - proposals which you and your department then announced a week ago’ - showed the extent of his colloboration. Yet like many Tory colleagues before him, IDS was furious that he had loyally agreed to dig in to defend the cuts - only for the Treasury and No.10 to then feel the heat and abandon him. It was an echo of the Omnishambles Budget of 2012, when Tory MPs manned the airwaves to defend mad micromeasures like the pasty tax and caravan tax, and worse still the tax credits cuts last autumn - only for Osborne to retreat. That sense of being made a fool of proved too toxic.
3) THIS JOKE ISN’T FUNNY ANYMORE
IDS had also had enough of the ridicule and hauteur of Treasury ministers and officials. One of his first clashes with Cameron in the Coalition came after a very senior civil servant in Downing Street ranted down the phone at him and treated him like a minister for paper clips, rather than a Secretary of State. Osborne famously told one friend he felt IDS was simply ‘not clever enough’ to be a Cabinet minister.
For Duncan Smith, ever since his Damascene conversion on seeing poverty up close in Glasgow’s Easterhouse soon after his defenestration as Tory leader, welfare reform has been his mission. It’s his ‘life’s vocation’ as one friend puts it. Yet the more urban, Metropolitan Osborne has often scoffed at the Christian evangelism of the project (IDS is a Catholic but has many Evangelical allies).
When I asked him last November about the creation of his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, he told me: “Some people disagree with it in the Conservative party - and quite a lot disagree with it I’m sure in the Labour party.” I asked, did some in the Treasury too? “There’s a certain amount of truth in that….,” he replied.
Of course, disabled groups and other claimants hit by the welfare reforms have long felt IDS’s fundamental mission is immoral, cruel and misguided. And throughout the last six years, he has needed a thick skin to bypass the repeated demos, pickets and flashmobs outside his offices.
He has needed a thick skin to cope with the mickey-taking too. When he uttered his famous football-terraces yell during the 2015 summer Budget, he was not cheering on more austerity, he was cheering the creation of the National Living Wage. Tellingly, he had not been informed by the Treasury of this huge policy change, but he cheered it because he felt it would get to the heart of his plan to help get people off benefits into work - by the state refusing to subsidise low pay.
4) THERE IS A LIGHT THAT NEVER GOES OUT
Never, ever forget that Europe - or rather Euroscepticism - is long been another driving passion of Duncan Smith’s. Some Government loyalists were muttering soon after his resignation that the EU referendum was really what this was all about. And it’s true that, as the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh revealed a few weeks ago, one Brexiteer Cabinet minister had been expected to quit in a blaze of glory before June 23.
IDS believes that getting the referendum was just the first step. Many Tory MPs think that Cameron and Osborne believe it was the last step. No one can doubt IDS’s integrity on the issue, but several Cameroons say that all his own talk about loyalty and betrayal - not least during his own Tory leadership - are undermined by the way he schemed against John Major. As Jeremy Corbyn is finding out with his PLP, serial rebellions are not an easy history for someone who wants to maintain discipline.
Some around IDS still remember the way the Cameroons were the ones to benefit from his downfall in 2003, with Osborne and Cameron made key lieutenants by Michael Howard after one of the most brutal and efficient regicides in political history. What motivates IDS most is the burning desire to get the UK out of the EU. The fact that many Tory MPs now saying Osborne’s leadership ambitions have been holed below the water line - that as an ‘Inner’ he can never take the crown - is just a happy byproduct.
5) WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
George Osborne’s leadership hopes, already listing, may now be done for. More importantly, for hundreds of thousands of people on disability, out-of-work and in-work benefits, the hope is that this resignation will make Cameron and Osborne see that there is a heavy political price to pay for repeated assaults on welfare budgets.
In the short term, the PIP reforms look dead in the water. The policy will ‘not go ahead in this form’, was how one senior No10 source put it to me, with classic Whitehall understatement.
As for IDS’s replacement, as I write it’s yet to be decided. But Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb would be the perfect man to step in. He’s smart, passionate and has had such a tough upbringing that no one could claim he has a silver spoon in his mouth. He’s also a devout Christian who could maintain the moral mission of his predecessor. Crucially, however, he’s a Eurosceptic ‘Inner’. That, for a PM fighting for his own political life over Europe, may matter more than anything.
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