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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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