IDS is in trouble over his strivers’ tax – and he knows it

Unable to justify the government's decision to cut support for families, the Work and Pensions Secretary has resorted to myths.

You can tell ministers are in trouble when they start peddling distortions on the scale we've seen from Iain Duncan Smith this week. IDS is in trouble. And he knows it.

Next week, the beleaguered Work and Pensions Secretary comes to the Commons to defend the indefensible. The comprehensive failure of George Osborne's budgets has forced the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) to revise up its forecasts for the claimant count by a third of a million. That's pushed up welfare spending by an eye-watering £13bn. To pay that bill, IDS has been asked to push through a strivers' tax - more than 60 per cent of which will come from working families -  on top of the £14bn already removed from tax credits, while Britain's richest citizens get a £3bn a year tax break.

It’s unjustifiable. And IDS knows it. So this week, we've had a very muddled attempt to make up some kind of case.

First, we had a made-up story that tax credit fraud had jumped by 58 per cent. This claim lasted about as long as it took Channel 4's FactCheck to gently point out, that IDS couldn't actually add up and the sums were wrong. Then we had a new line of attack. Benefits are rising faster than earnings. Except they're not. In the last ten years wages have risen faster than Jobseeker's Allowance, and the OBR tells us wages will power ahead of inflation in the next four years.

Then Nick Clegg tried to claim Labour was being inconsistent to low paid public service workers. We back a 1 per cent pay freeze, so why not a 1 per cent benefits cap? Because we've always said that 1 per cent should be an average with a tougher squeeze for the best paid public servants to fund higher pay rises for the lowest paid.

It's all fairly desperate stuff from a government that's trying at all costs to avoid admitting that the lion's share of the savings will come from working families' tax credits. So the real question in next week's debate is this: how can the government justify cutting working families' tax credits to pay for their failure to get Britain back to work - when millionaires are being given a tax cut? Right now working people are being hit with a double whammy. Wages are stagnant and tax credits are being slashed whilst at the same time the cost of living goes through the roof as anyone who boarded a train today will tell you.

The basic truth that IDS won't confront is simple. The best way to get welfare spending down is to get Britain back to work. But his much vaunted welfare revolution is in tatters. The Work Programme is literally worse than doing nothing. Universal Credit is beset with IT problems and has already been raided to pay for rising dole bills. Now the benefit cap is being pushed to the back end of the year because it’s a mess. Next week's Welfare Uprating Bill does nothing to address any of this. It does nothing to create a single new job.

More than half of the people currently out of work have been so for more than six months but the government isn’t lifting a finger to help. The Youth Contract is nowhere to be seen and the all too predictable result is youth unemployment still hovering around a million. That's why this government should be looking at far more concerted action to get Britain back to work with ideas like Labour's proposed tax on bankers' bonuses to create a fund big enough to get over 100,000 young people back into jobs.

There will plenty more smoke and mirrors from the government over the coming months but they can't disguise the reality of this Bill. It is a strivers’ tax which hammers hardworking families. The vast majority of the households hit are in work. Those are the people this government wants to cover the cost of their failure whilst 8,000 millionaires receive a tax cut worth an average of £107,500. If this government wants a battle over fairness whilst they are taking from hardworking families to fund a tax cut for the wealthiest, Labour is ready to take it on.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith outside Number 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

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