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

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Emmanuel Macron: a populist eruption from the liberal centre

The French presidential candidate has been compared with a young Tony Blair.

The French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron came to town this week to meet Theresa May and address the London French community, whose votes he was chasing. In our age of extremes, Macron, who is 39, is that rare thing – a populist eruption from the liberal centre. A former merchant banker and economy minister in the failing Hollande Socialiste administration, he represents En Marche! (“Forward!”), which is less a party than a movement. His sudden rise would not have been possible in Britain, which is part of the stability and attraction of the parliamentary system but also its frustration.

Don’t be shy

I met Macron on Tuesday afternoon when he took questions from a small group of journalists at Central Hall Westminster. He is small and dapper, with short hair and a strong, straight nose. Because of the collapse of the Socialistes and the struggles of the discredited conservative contender François Fillon, Macron has emerged as the great hope of liberals and perhaps as the candidate to stop Marine Le Pen seizing the presidency. Unlike the Front National leader, Macron is an unashamed liberal globaliser in the model of Nick Clegg or a younger, less tormented Tony Blair. He is a passionate advocate of the EU and of the eurozone and, as a result, is under attack from the Russian media. He has been accused of leading a double life – his wife, whom he met when she was his schoolteacher, is 20 years older than Macron – and of being unwilling to admit that he is gay, or at least bisexual. His response to the Russian attacks was, he said, “to disclose the manipulation and kill the rumours”.

The far right in France has caricatured Macron as being “globalisation personified”, about which he is relaxed. In conversation, he criticised David Cameron’s referendum campaign. “His message was ‘Yes but . . .’ That is not the answer to ‘No’. I defend Europe and the four freedoms of the EU. If you are shy, you are dead.”

Not all relative

On Sunday, I received a text from one of my cousins. “The Lincoln City manager and his brother, the assistant, are called Cowley,” he wrote. “His father looks a bit like your father. Any relation? They are from Essex.” I am also from Essex, born and brought up in Harlow new town, which turned 70 this year. But I had to disappoint my cousin. My father was an only child, as was his father, so it’s highly unlikely that these Cowley brothers are even distant relations of mine.

Toast of the county

I already knew about the brothers, having been alerted to them by my seven-year-old son, who is a sports data enthusiast. Last season, Danny Cowley and his younger brother, Nicky, were working as teachers in Essex while coaching Braintree Town at weekends. This season, they have led Lincoln to an FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal, making them the first non-League team to reach the last eight in more than a century. Lincoln are also at the top of the National League (English football’s semi-professional fifth division) and in the quarter-final of the FA Trophy, the premier non-League cup competition. The Cowleys are reported to be subsisting on a diet of toast and Marmite as they rise early each morning obsessively to study videos and analytics and prepare for the next match. They have introduced a new spirit of openness at the previously moribund club: fans watch training sessions and attend press conferences.

It’s nonsense to believe, as some do, that only those who have performed at the highest level have the authority to coach the best. Wenger, Mourinho, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Roy Hodgson, André Villas-Boas: none of them were even remotely successful players. Asked once to explain his accomplishments, Mourinho said: “I’ve had more time to study.” More English coaches – so few of whom are working in the Premier League – would do well to follow his example.

It will be fascinating to see how far the Cowley brothers progress in the game. Whatever happens next, they have reanimated interest in the FA Cup and given the resilient yeomen of Essex a small boost.

Ignore the huckster

Boris Johnson accused Tony Blair of “bare-faced effrontery” for having the temerity last week to deliver an anti-Brexit speech, which itself was an act of bare-faced effrontery. Johnson is a huckster and narcissist whose vanities have been grotesquely indulged for far too long by his cheerleaders and paymasters in the media. (A standard question to Johnson when he was mayor of London: “You do want to be prime minister, don’t you?”) No one should take anything Johnson says remotely seriously. Should the same be said of Blair?

Yes, of course he is the author of his own misfortunes and many will never forgive the former Labour prime minister for the Iraq catastrophe. Yet of all the politicians I have spoken to in recent times, Blair was the most intellectually nimble and the most alert to the defining complexities of the present moment. As he demonstrated in his speech, he also understands better than most why, in an age of intensifying ethnic nationalism, the parties of the left are failing across Europe, none more so than the British Labour Party, which looks as far away from power as it did after the 1931 election.

Journey to the centre

As an energetic and charismatic liberal, Macron has been likened to the young Tony Blair. Can he seize the progressive centre, as Blair did, and destabilise the old binary divisions of left and right? “The anti-European and anti-globalisation extremes are winning elections,” he said, in a veiled reference to Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit. “But we don’t have the same political cycles as the others. It’s time for France to do the opposite.” With that said, he thanked his interlocutors and was hurried off for a meeting with another Essex man, Philip Hammond, pursued not by a bear but by the journalist Robert Peston. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit