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9 November 2010

James Purnell: I could have been Iain Duncan Smith

Former cabinet minister reveals that he proposed a universal credit to Gordon Brown.

By George Eaton

There’s quite a revelation from James Purnell in today’s Times (£). He writes that he proposed a version of Iain Duncan Smith’s “universal credit” to Gordon Brown and resigned after he was rebuffed.

Purnell writes:

Before I resigned from the cabinet, I proposed a similar plan to Mr Brown. But he was scared that there would be losers, and his refusal to give me any answer made me think that there was no point in staying inside the government to try to influence him.

It’s now hard to find a mainstream politican or thinker who isn’t in favour of the universal credit, at least in principle, and Purnell deepens the consensus. He describes the IDS plan as a “good reform” and observes (in a point obscured by George Osborne) that “we lose more money in mistakes than in fraud”. As Duncan Smith is hailed by the left and the right as the most ambitious reformer since Beveridge, one can hear Purnell mutter: “I could have been a contender.”

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But he fails to ask the $64,000 question: is welfare reform possible at a time of high unemployment? The truth is that there are no jobs for many of the unemployed, nor will there be in the years to come. The number of long-term unemployed has more than doubled since 2008 to 797,000, while the number of vacancies has fallen to 467,000 – a jobs deficit of 330,000.

Yet, such objections aside, there’s now remarkably little to choose between Labour and the Conservatives on welfare. The coalition’s much-anticipated assault on universal (or “middle-class”) benefits didn’t materialise. Child benefit for higher earners was abolished (though the plan looks unenforceable), but the Winter Fuel Allowance, free bus passes and free TV licences were all retained in their present form.

It now seems that, against expectations, the key dividing lines of this parliament will not be over welfare reform.