Iain Duncan Smith: "Been there, done that" on £53 a week. He hasn't

IDS used the welfare state in his youth, and now he's pulling the ladder up behind him.

Iain Duncan Smith has doubled down on his claim that if he "had to" he could live on £53 a week, telling his local newspaper:

I have been unemployed twice in my life so I have already done this (lived on the equivalent of £53 a week). I know what it is like to live on the breadline.

He told the Daily Mail today about when he lost his job in 1992:

The company literally stopped working and like a number of people I was made redundant. I was shocked, but I had to go home and tell my wife that the wheels had come off the bus.

It took about three months to find a job. I picked up the paper every day, put a ring round all the job ads. I went to the library, looked up the stock market yearbook, wrote blind letters to people, used my Amstrad computer every day to look for work. Every bloody day I had to look for work. One of those blind letters got me in to an interview.

So I don’t need any lessons from people about living on a low income and making ends meet. I have done it twice and I know what it’s like to have to been made unemployed and to struggle. I’ve been there, done it.

He was also unemployed for a short period in 1981, after leaving the military.

Iain Duncan Smith has been unemployed for a short period twice. Both times, he made it through on not very much money, but always had the social safety net behind him if his savings ran out. Now he is safely in a career which will keep him well paid for life, he is claiming that that experience gives him the right to pull the ladder up behind him.

In 1981, unemployment benefit was £20.65 per week. In 1992, it was £43.10 per week. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, at April 2011 prices (deflated by RPI), those equate to £69.67 per week and £72.79 per week. When Iain Duncan Smith was unemployed for the first time, unemployment benefit was 18.7 per cent of average earnings. When he was unemployed for the second time, it was 14.1 per cent of average earnings.

At April 2011 prices, the £53 Iain Duncan Smith's department will be handing over is worth £50.17. That is 8.7 per cent of average earnings.

Iain Duncan Smith has not "been there, done that". When he went through his short periods of unemployment, 20 and 30 years ago, the social safety net was strong. The first time he was unemployed, he could have received almost a fifth of the average weekly earnings. The second time, he could have received a seventh. He's trying to claim that that experience means that he knows what it's like to live on less than a twelfth.

To put it another way, the value of what you can buy with unemployment benefit has remained pretty constant for the last 40 years. Iain Duncan Smith lived through a period when he could have that much – around £70 at 2011 prices – twice. He says that that means he has experience living on almost a quarter less again.

Iain Duncan Smith. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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