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21 March 2016

Celebrate Iain Duncan Smith leaving, but don’t let that distract from the mess he’s left behind

What's needed is a change of policies, not just a fresh face. 

By rosie Fletcher

Sometimes I wonder how people ever coped with breaking news before Twitter. When a sudden news story breaks, be it resignation, reshuffle or alleged porcine malpractice, social media becomes a street party of schadenfreude, retweets and popcorn gifs. And it’s been a long time since Twitter rolled out the bunting like it did for Iain Duncan Smith’s late night resignation. For those of us all too intimately acquainted with the Department for Work and Pensions, this was the Kansas farmhouse dropping from the sky we had been waiting for. Finally seeing IDS declare himself unfit for work was enough, but his laughable claims that he could not tolerate cuts to PIP meant it was champagne emojis until well past midnight.

The image that bounced around my head that night was that of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come showing Michael Caine some pigs in top hats in The Muppet Christmas Carol. “I thought he’d never go!” one of them snuffles of Ebeneezer Scrooge. And truly, I thought Iain Duncan Smith would never go. He had somehow clung onto the Department for Work and Pensions like a miserable limpet. Through reshuffle after reshuffle, despite his potent combination of incompetence and publicly recognised cruelty, he endured. He was the Japanese knotweed of the Conservative cabinet.

But unlike Ebeneezer, renouncing that the poor and destitute should hurry up and decrease the surplus population, make no mistake – Iain Duncan Smith has not resigned over a miraculous discovery of conscience.

Claiming to resign over cuts to Personal Independent Payments is not only a blatant fabrication, but not a very good one at that. Forget shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. This is shutting the stable door after personally shooting the horse provided for a disabled person to ride to work, boiling it up and using the glue to seal envelopes with benefit sanctions inside. If you must invent an excuse for resigning, at least try to make it credible and not breathtakingly hypocritical. 

IDS oversaw six years’ of cuts to welfare. He, more than anyone, helped push an agenda of workers vs. shirkers, of us vs. them. His argument that he just couldn’t stand for vulnerable people to be punished further holds no water, especially when he’s just seen through £30 a week cuts to Employment Support Allowance. He was not on the verge of putting Tiny Tim back on the Independent Living Fund.

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His own resignation letter, couple with Cameron’s response – which felt uncomfortably like reading someone else’s break-up texts, Osborne as unwitting third party – damn him further. His cuts aren’t indefensible from a moral standpoint, only because they were “within a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers”. He think it’s a great policy, he just think it makes him look bad. He can’t even pass the buck – Cameron pointedly reminds him that it’s a policy he agreed with the Treasury and Number 10. They get to remain abstract concepts, but it’s not a DWP policy – it’s Duncan Smith’s alone.

But even without Duncan Smith, the DWP has enough policies to frighten us. After six years of his leadership, his resignation isn’t going to usher in a Second Coming of the Welfare State. The Treasury can still say that Welfare spending is up, thanks to IDS’ profligate spending on policies that were never properly enacted. Sanctions and food banks are still the order of the day. Given yesterday’s FOI ruling on reports into the disaster that is Universal Credit, it seems that IDS only resigned because the extent of the mess he made at Work and Pensions is about to come to light.

So while I enjoyed the virtual trestle tables of jokes and rejoicing, we shouldn’t let Duncan Smith’s departure distract us from the very real damage his former department still causes. Creating Ministerial Boogeymen transfers problems with policy into problems with personnel. If Hunt were to leave the Department of Health, but his contract for junior doctors remain, that would be a very hollow victory indeed.

Stephen Crabb may be a fresh face, but it’s still rotten policy.