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Memo to David Cameron: I have all the incentives I need to stop being ill. It's called "being ill"

Disease isn’t like a gas meter. It has no notion of economics. It doesn’t switch off because you’ve stopped putting money in.

Another day, another rummage down the back of the benefits sofa to find a spare £12bn. This week: changing Employment Support Allowance to incentivise ill people to get back to work.

One problem: I already have the best incentive to stop being ill and get back to work. It’s called “being ill”.

I would love to go back to work because if I were able to work, I would no longer be sick. Long-term illness nibbles away at your identity from the edges, taking out chunks of the things that make you you: the friends you meet, the shops you wander into, the job you do. I would love to work, if only because it would give me something to use in small talk, a context in which to place myself, the grit around which an imperfect pearl of who I am can begin to re-form.

I would like to have a job. I would like to feel productive. I would like to do more with my day than clutch at cups of tea and switch on the radio because I can’t keep my eyes open for the television. But currently I can’t and I rely on ESA to keep me in teabags.

This proposal makes two fundamental mistakes: that illness and disability are a) passive and b) attractively lucrative.

If you think I do not work for my benefits, you are wrong. Ringing the DWP at eight in the morning to find out why my benefits are a month late, only to hear a recorded message to tell me they are busy and that perhaps I ought to call back between eight and nine in the morning. The constant stream of sick notes I have to ask my doctor for, pick up from the surgery and post to the DWP, because the backlog means that if I wanted to get assessed in a reasonable timeframe, I should have applied for ESA roughly six months before I got ill. The sight of a brown envelope on the doormat makes my heart pause; I fear each one will contain a ransom note of sanctions. My doctor asks me what causes me stress. I can answer in less than three words. I can answer in three letters. Dee. Doubleyew. Pea.

Use of the word “passive” is nonsensical, as though one can be “active” for sickness benefits. Perhaps I could open my home to visitors and charge them to look at me. Come, behold the Incredible Chronically Ill Girl! She’s only 25, but she walks with a stick! See how she struggles to do her own laundry! GASP as her overwhelming fatigue prevents her finding the words to answer your basic question about tea!

Chronic illness often feels like a terribly paid admin job, chasing down missed payments, posting doctors notes, requesting repeat prescriptions, sending in bank statements. The rigamarole around being ill seems to tower, colussus-like, over the actual illness. The welfare state should exist to make life easier for those in need, to offer a helping hand in times of crisis, no matter how long those times last. Welfare isn’t lucrative. It’s enough to get by.

Disease isn’t like a gas meter. It has no notion of economics. It doesn’t switch off because you’ve stopped putting money in. This isn’t some kind of elaborate con I’ve been running, shutting myself away from the world to trick you out of the princely sum of £48 a week. Cutting my benefits won't get me back into work. It will make my life smaller, more stressful. It will make me sicker.

Please do not be taken in by the weaselly misuse of the word incentive. Incentives are nice things, rewards, like cream cakes or that video of Michael Gove falling over. Cutting the money that sick and disabled people receive isn’t an incentive to work, it’s a disincentive and a punishment for being ill. You can paint it orange and call it a carrot as much as you like, but if you’re beating people into the ground with it, it’s still a stick.

This isn’t just a question of economics, of ideological war on the welfare state. This is the insidious, callous notion that sick and disabled people are ultimately not trying hard enough. This says what people with chronic illnesses and disabilities hear all too much from their friends, from their families, from even their doctors: we do not believe that you are ill.

If you think that eventually you can make people so sad and stressed and poor that they will “get over” being ill, that you can starve them out and they’ll end their little displays of sickness, then you are very much mistaken. We have all the incentives we need to get back to work; cutting ESA will only make it harder to do so.

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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.