The universal credit is the government's next big train wreck

Welfare reform could go so massively wrong, even the intelligence services are worried.

Even if the process for awarding the West Coast rail franchise was bungled by civil servants, it is politically disastrous for the government for a number of reasons. First, voters don’t want to hear politicians blaming their officials, even when the blame is deserved. Second, if ministers seize on the episode as an opportunity to accelerate civil service reform – as they surely will – the long-standing Cold War between Whitehall and the government will heat up, with inevitable leaks, briefings and other mischief that can destabilise an administration.

Third, David Cameron’s governing philosophy is famously obscure and coalition with the Lib Dems curtails his room for policy manoeuvre, so demonstrating the ability to competently implement existing policy is vital for the Prime Minister’s prospects at the next election.

When asked about the plan for recovering public support, senior figures in both coalition parties these days talk about “delivery” – showing that the government is actually getting on with the business of repairing the national finances and sorting out “Labour’s mess”. It is all about rolling up the sleeves and looking like a professional administration, hired by the electorate to do a tough old job. (Check out how often Cameron is photographed with his sleeves literally rolled up.) Labour, by contrast, can then be depicted as deranged fantasists, avoiding tough choices and banging on about weird abstractions instead of talking practical sense, rolling up their sle… you get the idea.

So it looks bad when the “delivery phase” doesn’t deliver and the competence file gets corrupted. Right now, Downing Street should be thinking very hard about what the next part of the programme to unravel will be and taking some pre-emptive measures. There are two obvious candidates.

First, the election of police commissioners. Hardly anyone knows this is happening although the votes are due to be held in England and Wales on 15 November. Turnout will be dismal and, by all accounts, the calibre of candidates is low. This was supposed to be a flagship reform, a great democratisation, a ballot box incarnation of "the big society". It looks like being a bunch of single-issue council seat by-elections.

Second, the universal credit (UC). This is a big one – the epic reconfiguration of the benefits system with a view to making work more lucrative than claiming welfare is due to be rolled out from October next year. Hardly anyone in Whitehall thinks this will happen. It is a vast project that requires complex IT systems, the effective commissioning of which is not an area where the civil service has famously distinguished itself in the past. One particular cause of concern is a plan to introduce “real time” data transfer from employers to the department for work and pensions - via HMRC – so that changes in someone’s work and pay status can filter through automatically to their benefit payments.

This experiment in massive inter-departmental exchange  of highly sensitive private data combined with payments worth billions of pounds has the potential to go spectacularly wrong. I understand from a well-placed source that the intelligence services are taking a close interest in the administration of universal credit because they fear it will compromise national cyber-security. Well-organised criminal hackers (or indeed other foreign intelligence agencies) could break into the system to commit colossal fraud or otherwise sabotage government business.

Separately, those who witness  the administration of the welfare system on the ground – whether in job centres or through citizens’ advice bureaux – are reporting a steep rise in cases of misallocations, errors and general bungling that means some very vulnerable people aren’t getting the money they need. The question being asked with increasing urgency (but still mostly in private) by pretty much everyone involved in welfare policy is this: if the DWP can’t seem to administer the existing benefits system properly, how on earth are they going to manage the switch to UC?

It doesn’t help that Iain Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State responsible for the whole thing, has a thin skin. Officials, charities and advisors from other departments report a culture of prickly denial at the top of the DWP. To hear the way “stakeholders” tell it, if you suggest there are problems with the UC implementation, it is inferred that you do not believe in IDS and, as an enemy of the project, are frozen out. If this is true there is serious trouble ahead.

One remarkable feature of both the police commissioners and universal credit policy accidents waiting to happen is that no-one seems to know who in Number 10 is supposed to be across these things. One of the most frequent complaints from Tories about the Downing Street operation is that there aren’t enough people with really sound political antennae keeping a strategic eye on other departments. Too much, it is said, is being done by civil servants who work on practical measures but don’t keep their ears to the ground for the sound of an incoming stampede of bad headlines.  

Maybe the current turmoil in the Department of Transport could never have been foreseen. Some storms do appear from nowhere. But some can be detected by radar long before they hit the shore. There is a hurricane gathering over the DWP and when the wind picks up and the bad news starts raining down, Cameron should be prepared.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith "has a thin skin". Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue