Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is Cameron now afraid to mention Universal Credit?

The PM's piece on welfare reform makes no reference to Iain Duncan Smith's troubled programme.

Aside from his false claim that the number of workless families doubled under Labour (which I've fisked here), the most notable thing about David Cameron's piece on welfare reform in today's Telegraph is what he doesn't mention: Universal Credit. The programme, which aims to replace six of the main benefits and tax credits with a single payment, has long been touted as the means by which the coalition will transform the benefits system and "make work pay", but Cameron doesn't even reference it in passing in his article. 

Given the chaos surrounding the scheme, that's perhaps not surprising. To date, the DWP has written off £40.1m of assets developed for the programme and expects to write down a further £91m by March 2018, prompting the National Audit Office to warn that it has has "not achieved value for money". 

This waste has come in spite of, not because of, the number of people using the new system. As recently as March 2013, it was forecast that 1.7 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by 2015 but as the OBR table below shows, that figure has now been rounded down to zero. According to the DWP, there were just 3,200 people on the benefit at the end of November, 996,800 short of Duncan Smith's original April 2014 target of one million, with only the simplest cases (such as single people claiming Jobseeker's Allowance) taken on. As Labour MP Glenda Jackson noted at a recent work and pensions select committee hearing, "The people you are actually testing are a small number, the simplest of cases. How an earth are you going to achieve the evidence that you keep telling us you are going to learn from when the cohort is so narrow and so simple?"

By 2015-16, the OBR expects 400,000 people to be claiming Universal Credit, less than 10 per cent of the original target of 4.5 million. Nearly three million (2.9 million) are forecast to be on the system by 2017 but the OBR warns that "given the delays to date, and the scale of migration required in 2016 and 2017, there is clearly a risk that the eventual profile differs significantly from this new assumption". It notes that the government's new migration timetable "has yet to be subjected to full business case approval". 

So great are the obstacles now faced by Universal Credit that many in Whitehall believe it will be put out of its misery after May 2015. As today's FT reports, officials believe that it "must start delivering results by the next election or risk being drastically scaled back or even abandoned". 

Back in May 2010, many on the right claimed that Universal Credit would become one of the government's success stories and a defining part of Cameron's legacy. But nearly four years later, the PM can't even bring himself to mention it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May knows she's talking nonsense - here's why she's doing it

The Prime Minister's argument increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in her words - the Tories your vote.

Good morning.  Angela Merkel and Theresa May are more similar politicians than people think, and that holds true for Brexit too. The German Chancellor gave a speech yesterday, and the message: Brexit means Brexit.

Of course, the emphasis is slightly different. When May says it, it's about reassuring the Brexit elite in SW1 that she isn't going to backslide, and anxious Remainers and soft Brexiteers in the country that it will work out okay in the end.

When Merkel says it, she's setting out what the EU wants and the reality of third country status outside the European Union.  She's also, as with May, tilting to her own party and public opinion in Germany, which thinks that the UK was an awkward partner in the EU and is being even more awkward in the manner of its leaving.

It's a measure of how poor the debate both during the referendum and its aftermath is that Merkel's bland statement of reality - "A third-party state - and that's what Britain will be - can't and won't be able to have the same rights, let alone a better position than a member of the European Union" - feels newsworthy.

In the short term, all this helps Theresa May. Her response - delivered to a carefully-selected audience of Leeds factory workers, the better to avoid awkward questions - that the EU is "ganging up" on Britain is ludicrous if you think about it. A bloc of nations acting in their own interest against their smaller partners - colour me surprised!

But in terms of what May wants out of this election - a massive majority that gives her carte blanche to implement her agenda and puts Labour out of contention for at least a decade - it's a great message. It increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in May's words - the Tories your vote. You may be unhappy about the referendum result, you may usually vote Labour - but on this occasion, what's needed is a one-off Tory vote to make Brexit a success.

May's message is silly if you pay any attention to how the EU works or indeed to the internal politics of the EU27. That doesn't mean it won't be effective.

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

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