How is Iain Duncan Smith still in his job?

If the doctrine of ministerial responsibility means anything, the Work and Pensions Secretary should have resigned over the failure of Universal Credit long ago.

It’s going to be another uncomfortable day for Iain Duncan Smith. Today’s Public Accounts Committee report on Universal Credit is one of the most excoriating anyone can remember. Margaret Hodge and her colleagues warn that most of the £425m of public money so far spent on the programme is likely to be written off, that management of the project has been “alarmingly weak”, that the DWP has consistently failed to “grasp the nature and enormity of the task”, and that it missed early “warning signs”, refusing to “intervene promptly”.

The committee adds that Duncan Smith will not meet his current target of enrolling 184,000 claimants (a fraction of the original number) by April 2014 and that the department will have to “speed up the later stages of the programme” if it is to meet the 2017 completion date. This, it warns, poses “new risks”.

The Universal Credit pilot, which is confined to just five jobcentres and to single people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, is rightly derided as “not a proper pilot”. The MPs note: “It lacks the security components needed to prevent fraudulent claims and protect individuals’ personal information. It does not deal with the key issues that Universal Credit must address: the volume of claims; their complexity; change in claimants’ circumstances; and the need for claimants to meet conditions for continuing entitlement to benefit. The Department needs a revised pilot that is capable of properly informing the full roll-out of Universal Credit.”

As on previous occasions, there appears to have been a concerted attempt by Duncan Smith and his allies to pin the blame on DWP Permanent Secretary Robert Devereux. The Times reports that at least three Tory MPs on the committee were approached and asked to ensure that the report “heaped blame on to the Permanent Secretary” and that “Robert Devereux was to be associated with the key failings”. This despite parliamentary rules stating that ministers are not allowed to influence Commons committee reports. One opposition MP tells the paper: "It was obvious there was some kind of coordinated effort going on. Some of the Conservative members wanted us to be much tougher on the Permanent Secretary than the rest of us were comfortable with”.

In the resultant report, Devereux is not mentioned by name, with only two references to the “accounting officer”, suggesting that Labour members prevailed over their Tory counterparts. A spokesperson for Duncan Smith says today: "Iain was clear back in the summer about how he and the permanent secretary took action to fix those problems. He has every confidence with the team now in place, and that team includes Robert Devereux." But the Tories are simultaneously briefing that his resignation will be accepted if offered, with one commenting: “Once again officials have been named and ministers have not, and that will make uncomfortable reading.”

But if the doctrine of ministerial responsibility means anything it’s worth asking: how is Duncan Smith still in his job? He was warned from the start by multiple groups that he had underestimated the scale of the task and that Universal Credit would be delivered neither on time or on budget. Back in October 2010, the Chartered Institute of Taxation noted in its response to the government's consultation: “The document suggests that the IT changes required would not constitute a major project, and this was repeated by the Secretary of State [Iain Duncan Smith] when he gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee. We are sceptical about this.”

That Duncan Smith remains in his post owes much to the weakness of David Cameron and George Osborne. When attempts were made to move him to Justice in the September 2012 reshuffle, the Work and Pensions Secretary refused point blank, making it clear that there was only one job in government he wanted. Rather than allowing this eurosceptic right-winger to emerge as a rival centre of power on the backbenches, Cameron and Osborne chose to keep him in the tent. Given the failure of Universal Credit, they may well have concluded that the best option lies in him remaining in post and soaking up the abuse. 

Labour, meanwhile, has focused its criticism on Cameron, not IDS. In her response to today's report, Rachel Reeves said: "Today’s report from the Public Accounts Committee is a shocking confirmation of David Cameron’s failure and another nail in the coffin of his Government’s promise to deliver Universal Credit on time and on budget.

"Families facing a cost of living crisis need welfare reform they can trust. Instead they’ve got an out of touch Prime Minister who has presided over chaos and waste." Forget the enfeebled Duncan Smith, Labour has bigger fish to fry. 

Thus it seems, defying all convention, that Duncan Smith will survive. But his original ambition to transform the welfare system in one parliament is dead. Whether Labour or the Tories win in 2015, don't bet on them picking up the baton. 

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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