In praise of Iain Duncan Smith

The former Tory leader might not be right on marriage – but he should still be listened to.

Iain Duncan Smith has undergone one of the most comprehensive rebrandings in modern politics. He was an abysmal failure as Conservative Party leader. But instead of heading for the lucrative speaking circuit or the City to lick his wounds, the "quiet man" went to some of the most challenging parts of our country.

He was determined to find out why, in a highly developed nation like ours, so many people struggle to get out of the poverty they are born into.

When he speaks as Work and Pensions Secretary, I am minded to think positively and listen with an open mind. The Lib Dem minister for pensions, Professor Steve Webb, said that he was learning to not have a "knee-jerk" reaction to Conservative policies within that department.

I am not alone in thinking one should have an open mind when IDS speaks. One of the most fascinating blogs of last year was by the former general secretary of the Labour Party Peter Watt, who said:

Take the example of welfare policy. Listen to Labour and the assumption is that IDS wants to punish the poor, somehow that he gets off on increasing vulnerable people's suffering. What we don't think is that he wants to improve the lives of the poor but just doesn't think that the current incarnation of the welfare state is the best way to achieve this.

I agree with Peter. I believe that IDS genuinely wants to improve people's lives.

IDS believes there is a need for muscular rhetoric when it comes to the issue of marriage. In a speech today, he will say:

Over the years the political establishment has frowned if a mainstream politician mentions marriage. The prevailing view was that to extol the virtues of this most fundamental institution somehow meant that you were going to stigmatise those who were not married. This is an absurd and damaging assumption. Government must understand the effect that family breakdown can have on the well-being of both adults and children.

Tough words, but then read the detail outlined here in the Telegraph.

None of the policy substance is about tax breaks for married couples. Instead it is all about helping couples to stay together: a service available to all, and not just married, couples.

It reminds me of the Work and Pensions Secretary's predecessor Peter Lilley, a cabinet member in Margaret Thatcher's government whose right-wing rhetoric sent the flag-waving blue-rinse ladies at Conservative party conference into paroxysms of delight. Back in Whitehall, however, he was seen by many of his civil servants as one of the more reasonable ministers.

To me, as a Liberal Democrat, IDS's rhetoric on marriage is unappealing. The idea of financial incentives for people to get married is from a different age. But failing to look at the detail of his proposals would be disrespectful to the time, effort and dedication he has expended to overcome a critical problem in the UK today.

Tax incentives for marriage may be a goal for IDS – but they will not become reality for some time. He will beef up the talk, but the advice and assistance will be aimed at all couples, not just married couples.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496