Iain Duncan Smith speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Duncan Smith: welfare cap will force ministers to choose between families and the disabled

The Work and Pensions Secretary says the policy "is not about punishing people, it's about saying that the money we have is finite."

Other than an attempt to trap Labour, what is the point of the government's new cap on welfare spending? That was the question put by Evan Davis to Iain Duncan Smith on the Today programme this morning. Duncan Smith explained that the cap, which will apply to all welfare spending except the state pension and cyclical unemployment benefits, was an attempt to bring "control" to a previously unlimited area of spending and to ensure that the government is more "accountable" to taxpayers for its decisions. 

When challenged on what would happen if a rise in spending in one area, such as disability benefits, led the cap (set at £119.5bn for 2015-16) to be breached, he said that the government would either "make adjustments" within the budget (i.e. cut benefits) or, if there was "a very strong and compelling reason" for the increase, would go to the House of Commons and seek MPs' approval for a rise in the limit.

It was when Davis responded that this meant the cap was not much of a restriction at all (since the government can usually rely on backbench support on budgetary matters), that Duncan Smith revealed his preference. "I wouldn't want to do that because it would show that we've failed," he said of the prospect of a vote on raising the cap. Asked whether he would, for instance, be prepared to cut spending on family benefits if disability spending rises, he bluntly replied: "I'd adjust that internally". He added that the policy was "not about punishing people" but "about saying that the money we have is finite." In others words, if welfare spending rises faster than expected, someone will always have to pay the price. 

It's for this reason that a significant minority of Labour MPs are so opposed to their leadership's decision to support the cap (as The Staggers first revealed on Monday), with party whips expecting around 20 to rebel when the vote is held this afternoon. But as Duncan Smith went on to argue, Miliband's backbenchers may have less to fear than they think. He derided Labour's support for the cap as "a scam" on the basis that it had failed to say how it would pay for the £465m cost of abolishing the bedroom tax. Labour's response is to point out that many housing experts expect the policy to cost more than it saves (due to an increase in homelessness and housing benefit claims for private properties) and that measures such as its living wage contracts would help to bring the benefits bill down.

But Duncan Smith's broader point stands: there is nothing to stop a future Labour government adjusting the cap to make it less punitive. As Gavin Kelly noted on The Staggers yesterday, the coalition's fiscal mandate, of which the cap is part, automatically dissolves at the end of this parliament and will be replaced by whatever arrangement the new administration sees fit. Labour has pledged to accept the coalition's spending totals for 2015-16, which would mean maintaining a cap of £119.5bn, but expect the Tories to argue that, after this point, the opposition could not be trusted to be wise spenders. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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