Who’d have thought it? Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, arch-advocate of cutting benefits to the bone for the best part of a decade, has resigned on the pretext that the cuts to disability benefits proposed by the Chancellor in the Budget went too far. Yes, you heard right. I know it sounds about as plausible as Nick Griffin regarding Oswald Mosley as someone who was a bit extreme, but that’s what ‘the quiet man’ said in his resignation letter as he walked out of the Cabinet.
George Osborne had again exhibited his charmless talent for embodying the Nasty Party mantle that continues to plague the Conservatives when unveiling this week’s Budget. This time – surprise, surprise – the recipients of his purse-string-pruning belonged to one of the few sections of society that he and his spivvy cronies can’t make a profit from: the sick and the disabled. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose memories of a ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ sketch spoofing Chancellor Geoffrey Howe were evoked, the one where he announces taxes on wheelchairs, white sticks and guide-dogs, adding ‘I am deliberately targeting those who can’t fight back’. So far, so predictable – but wait! There are actually some Tories sitting in the House who didn’t endorse his proposed disability benefit cuts, some who don’t fit the born-to-rule profile, some who are decent constituency MPs concerned that the wrong people are being punished again, some who are even threatening to stage a backbench rebellion if Gideon attempts to force the measure through Parliament.
The backtracking has already begun, barely 48 hours after Osborne proclaimed the policy with his customary brand of misanthropic smugness; Education Minister Nicky Morgan – wearer of a curious expression that implies she’s being permanently goosed – has hastily stepped in to declare that Osborne’s Personal Independence Payment cuts were ‘just a suggestion’. Of course, Gideon has been here before – just last year, as a matter of fact. Remember his attempts to slash £4 billion from Working Tax Credits? That’s the one that was famously thrown out by the Lords and resulted in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement being dominated by the humiliating abandonment of the idea. And if that concept was regarded as an attack on David Cameron’s favourite standby of ‘hard-working families’, how will this latest example of Osborne’s arrogance and conceit blinding him to his own miscalculations be welcomed?
One would expect the Opposition to oppose Osborne’s idea; it’s their job to do so, after all. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused the Chancellor and his party of waging war on the disabled, but I doubt anybody would have anticipated less. However, the fury of disability campaigners – 25 charities have wasted little time in composing a joint letter asking the Government to think again – seems to be complemented by an unexpectedly sympathetic response to their concerns from within the Conservative Party itself.
Iain Duncan Smith, in his role as the man with whom the buck stops when it comes to benefit cuts, has responded to Osborne’s plans by suddenly agreeing with anyone in possession of a heart. ‘I have for some time,’ he writes, ‘and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled, and the context in which they’ve been made, are a compromise too far.’ For a man who has already overseen more than £30 billion cuts to the welfare budget to exit government on such a pretext sounds a bit rich, yet Duncan Smith goes on to cite the unfairness of a Budget that benefits higher-earners and penalises those at the bottom. He knows he would have been in the firing line had these cuts been implemented and he also knows his position as a long-term Euro-Sceptic, in direct opposition to Osborne, would have rendered his post even more intolerable at such a politically perilous moment for Britain’s EU membership. Iain Duncan Smith has ironically quit on a day when Cameron and Osborne have quickly distanced themselves from these controversial proposals, but the fact that the quiet man hasn’t gone quietly is further evidence of Tory tensions as the EU Referendum edges closer.
For all IDS’s apparent U-turn on benefit cuts, one cannot but see this resignation in the context of the Brexit issue. It colours everything in Tory circles right now. One could even be cynical – perish the thought! – and suggest the backbenchers who oppose Osborne’s plans might just be doing so because Gideon represents the anti-Brexit faction and they’re making the most of every opportunity to give him a bloody nose.
George Osborne has gleefully promoted himself as the main man in the Remain camp along with scaremongering Dave, yet he increasingly seems to be going further out on a limb in a party that can call on some of its most prominent heavyweights to sell the opposing message. Another Budget cock-up is the last thing Gideon needed; that it has resulted in the voluntary exit of a man he hoped would deflect the vitriol of disability campaigners away from him is an additional blow that doesn’t bode well for his Prime Ministerial ambitions. If that’s the case, I suspect there won’t be a moist eye in the House.
© The Editor