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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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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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