Naked Politics Blogger
That’s what Iain Duncan Smith called George Osborne’s suggested cuts to the Personal Independence Payment (benefits awarded to those with disabilities in order to get on with daily tasks). Yesterday, IDS resigned from his post as minister for Work and Pensions.
Few will see it as proof of outstanding moral fiber. As Stephen Bush points out, IDS has overseen many cuts to the disability benefit, and to choose these to resign over seems odd because the rebellion—from the Tory side—is already likely to be substantial.
To those on the left, it is a remarkable occasion that goes to prove the extent of Osborne’s failings regarding his latest budget. Even IDS, one of the most prominent figures of austerity, has managed to take the moral high ground.
Some will say that the PIP controversy is probably little more than a front. IDS is a Brexiter and this may have been at the root of his falling out with the very top of his party. Sources close to the former opposition leader deny this—it is hard to tell at this stage how big of a role Europe played in his decision making, but it definitely tinted the glass through which he would respond to any of Osborne’s budget announcement.
Nonetheless, a more compelling argument is that IDS was scared his welfare narrative was being hijacked by the budget’s contempt for the working poor. This creates yet another divide within the ideology of the contemporary Conservative party.
Is austerity part of a wider moral readdressing of Britain where everyone pays their fair share and those who work are rewarded for this? Or is it just a way of cutting costs and cutting government in order to balance the books?
IDS seems to defend the first notion. Though at times perceived as very harsh, the rhetoric behind his welfare reforms have followed a certain logic: the government shouldn’t be giving money to the undeserving. This was successful according to one hugely important metric: employment, which at its highest level since 2005. But the driving factor behind much of his policy wasn’t success but ‘morality’. Though almost impossible to avoid hurting the deserving when introducing cuts in order to target relatively insignificant occurrences like benefit fraud, it was still the ‘right’ thing to do under this particularly flavour of morality. What’s so fascinating is that IDS seems to feel that now the deserving really are being punished, that there is a limit to what the cuts should achieve, and that that limit has been reached.
Osborne however, by coupling an unnecessary further cut to the payments of disabled people with a large cut of capital gains tax, seems to support a very different idea: limited government, a powerful private sector, and hopefully lots of money flowing around. The problem with that sort of thinking is that it belies the point of a government in a capitalist society: to intervene when the markets don’t allow for widespread prosperity.
In his resignation letter, IDS wrote: “A nation’s commitment to the least advantaged should include the provision of a generous safety net but it should also include incentive structures and practical assistance programmes to help them live independently of the state. Together, we’ve made enormous strides towards building a system of social security that gets the balance right between state-help and self-help.” It is a world-view that few could disagree with. How it is achieved, of course, is quite another matter.
Indeed, there will long be contention over IDS’ policies, which have been seen as very harmful by many, but there was an ‘ideal’ behind them. With this Budget, Osborne seems inherently beneath any notion of ideals. He failed his own economic targets, and started to butcher the idea that the Tories had recast themselves as the party of the working majority.
By resigning now, Iain Duncan Smith—rather incredibly—may end up emerging as a figure who actually stood for all that made the party so popular over the last few years. His commitment, if it is sincere, to working Britons is commendable and the resignation letter suggests that many of the cuts to the benefits bill were delivered reluctantly under pressure from those above—which is of course a very convenient thing to say.
So maybe he wasn’t that bad after all. Or maybe he’s just smart enough to sense that things are going to get pretty rocky for the Conservatives.