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.