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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.