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Think Iain Duncan Smith's resignation is a masterstroke? Sadly, he's not that clever

No, Iain Duncan Smith's resignation isn't part of a cunning plan.

Iain Duncan Smith spent five years in the Cabinet not resigning over cuts to disabled people's payments that did happen, before resigning over that one that won't happen. The proposed cuts to the Personal Independence Payment had already been called off following a public revolt by Conservative backbenchers, and news that the cut will be cancelled arrived in journalists' inboxes long before Duncan Smith's resignation did.

All of which might lead you to think that something else is going on, that this resignation has more to do with the coming referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union than anything to do with the welfare budget. For politicos - weaned on a diet of The West WingBorgenScandal et al - this is a particularly tempting narrative. We love to believe that there's a plan, that everything happens for a reason. There's just one small problem here: and that problem is Iain Duncan Smith.

As exciting as it would be for people like me, Iain Duncan Smith simply isn't clever enough to have thought this many moves ahead. This is the man who is the chief architect of the universal credit, which was supposed to have been rolled out in October 2013, and in March 2016 has been rolled out to the grand total of 203,000 people - and by "people", I mean "single men without dependents", the only group whose claims are simple enough to be processed on the universal credit.

This is the Secretary of State who has wasted so much money on failed policies that the government is able to claim - entirely truthfully - that the money being spent on disabled people has gone up, even though not a single penny has gone to disabled people while countless billions have been lavished on IT systems that don't work and a benefit reform that will never be implemented.

This is the man who as leader of the Conservative party mistook a spoof poster - "It rains less under a Conservative government" - for the real thing, happily posing underneath it. This is the man who Osborne described as "not clever enough" after watching him present on his welfare reforms in the last government. This is the man who, despite having been the longest-serving Secretary of State at the Department for Welfare and Pensions, leaves it having implemented nothing and done nothing. 

It is certainly true that this is a man who has been waiting for an excuse to walk out of the government since the Autumn Statement in November 2015, when Osborne moved the tax credit cuts into the universal credit rollout - a sign that, as far as the Treasury was concerned, the universal credit will never happen. As civil servants in the DWP have observed, Duncan Smith has been a broken figure since that setback, one that would have been obvious if he had had any grip on his department.

Resigning as part of a plan? As exciting as that would be, Iain Duncan Smith simply isn't good enough for that. 

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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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.