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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad