Is IDS nervous about getting unemployed Britain back to work?

The government would prefer to blame unemployment on immigration than on their economic policies.

It is hard to see what Iain Duncan Smith will gain from his call today for employers to hire indigenous British workers over migrants. The short-term politics of it are fairly straightforward: the government would rather people blamed unemployment on immigration, which for the time being can still be portrayed as a Labour legacy, than on their own economic policies.

But commercial enterprises aren't generally minded to set their recruitment drives to spare ministers' blushes. It is their job, so they say, to hire the best people and it is government's task to run an education and training system that turns out credible candidates.

David Frost of the British Cambers of Commerce put it pretty bluntly on the Today programme this morning:

[Employers] expect young people to come forward to them who are able to read, write, communicate and have a strong work ethic, and too often that's not the case ... And there's a stream of highly able eastern European migrants who are able to take those jobs, and that's why they're taking them on.

IDS's point is essentially that the government -- through the Work Programme, which got up and running this month -- will change all of that, and businesses should take note. No doubt they will, if the Work Programme does what it is supposed to. The idea is that private sector firms will prepare unemployed people for work and get money from the DWP budget if they manage it. It is arguably the most ambitious "payment by results" system for welfare-to-work policies anywhere in the world.

But the point that IDS seems to be ignoring is that the system is explicitly designed to function as a market. Government shouldn't have to intervene to direct employers' hiring policy. The Work Programme providers only get paid if they place people in work. So if the policy is a success, there will be no need for businesses to start actively favouring indigenous Brits -- they'll have them on the books already. And if they don't, then something will have gone badly wrong with the Work Programme model. The rate at which under-educated and under-skilled British workers get back into the labour market is clearly a test of IDS's policy. He can't start blaming businesses in advance in case it doesn't work.

Of course, success in that respect depends most of all on the rate of job creation in the economy as a whole. The Office for Budget Responsibility (using models from the Treasury) forecasts the appearance of 1.3m new jobs by 2015, which are presumed to come from increased private sector investment. That assumption follows from the broader expectation that GDP growth will bounce back to just under 3 per cent over the same period.

Most economists I speak to think those forecasts are pretty optimistic. And some of the unsuccessful bidders for Work Programme contracts (and some successful ones) have told me they think the whole thing will falter because there simply won't be enough jobs out there -- and they suggest a number of providers have been naïve or lazy in their estimates of how much it actually costs to rehabilitate someone after a long period of unemployment. So the ingenious market mechanism could malfunction. Result: the DWP in dispute with private sector contractors who aren't delivering the goods, and stubborn joblessness.

It looks as if IDS is getting nervous about his ability to get unemployed Britain back to work. If he fails, it won't be the fault of immigrants or business.

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

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories