There’s only one question about Iain Duncan Smith: is he a “bastard”, as described by his former prime minister John Major, or a “shit” – as reportedly described by his current leader, David Cameron? For hypocrisy and outright dishonesty do you howl in indignation, or roar with crazed laughter at his new compassion? How has this architect of so much torment for so many, justifier of injustice, scourge of the poor and the sick, become the champion of underdogs? How can this Nosferatu say he never had a taste for blood?
As for David Cameron’s riposte yesterday – improving life chances, rebuilding sink estates? – reviving his old pretence of “modern compassionate Conservatism”, that deserves the same raspberries of ridicule. But he does it well, for those who hear the words and never see the facts on the ground. And now he is forced to abandon extra cuts.
What is the former welfare secretary up to? Look at the backers who defend him: all are Brexiteers, mostly on the right, not friends of the poor. He was always the pre-referendum ticking time bomb, and now he has pulled the pin to inflict maximum damage to the authority of the prime minister. As the Daily Express headline gloats: “Tory split helps fight to free us from Brussels.” The IDS backer and Europhobe Owen Paterson has never knowingly objected to cuts for the poor, nor has Bernard Jenkin: his wife, Baroness Jenkin, presented a Church of England report on 4 million people going hungry, saying: “Poor people don’t know how to cook. I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p.” In their world, poverty is always due to fecklessness: IDS never acknowledges that most of the poor are in work.
Worse than cuts has been this government’s relentless anti-poor propaganda, with George Osborne’s sneers at households sleeping on with blinds closed; or IDS’s attacks on the “something for nothing culture” as he warned those on benefits: “This is not an easy life any more, chum. I think you’re a slacker.”
The invention of “compassionate conservatism” came in 2002 when Duncan Smith staged a public epiphany with photographers in Glasgow’s Easterhouse estate: he said he was shocked by the wretchedness he saw. Cameron seized on this to detoxify the party. When I retraced Duncan Smith’s steps, I found those in the Easterhouse community centre he visited who had warmly welcomed his conversion now distraught at the effects of his policies. Many had been cut off benefits, one man with acute psychosis, another who was barely literate and failed to claim correctly. Food banks everywhere are filled with victims of sanctions: abolishing the emergency social fund – handing out £5 a day to the truly desperate – was emblematic.
Iain Duncan Smith rapped by watchdog for misusing benefits cap statistics
It’s hard to exaggerate the cruelty of his cuts, boasting of the £30bn “saved”. Not a croaky whisper of protest came from him at £12bn more cuts in the manifesto. The bedroom tax left most people unable to downsize, their income massively depleted. The benefits cap poleaxed families in the south-east. Universal credit has a 50-page online form, leaving many with learning difficulties or mental health problems unable to apply. Billed as a modest technical tidying up, universal credit has wasted billions with failed IT systems; it is years late and doesn’t do what he says it does: incentives to work are no better, its recipientslosing 65p or more in any extra pound they earn. It disincentivises partners from working, losing earnings in withdrawn credits.
IDS ignored warnings, claiming magical solutions to eternal welfare conundrums: how do you give the needy enough for a decent life without damaging the impulse to work? How do you taper benefits gently so that earning more doesn’t lose them money? At first he plainly didn’t understand the complexity: later he just denied it, claiming that putting six benefits together was “simplifying”. But each of those still has to be recalculated monthly.
His successor inherits a morass of expensive bungles and needless viciousness. IDS’s reign of terror extended to every jobcentre, though he denied there were targets for staff to knock claimants off benefits. The word “target” is replaced with euphemisms like “spinning plates”. One unhappy jobcentre adviser told me: “You park your conscience when you work here.” Advisers tell of orders to apply sanctions for tiny infractions, closing the claims of those who fail to follow the “50 steps to work” so they vanish from statistics. Every month managers check “sanction-raising figures”: low sanctioners are “managed out” of their jobs.
Duncan Smith’s numerical jiggery-pokery became legendary, undeterred by stern rebukes from the public accounts committee, the National Audit Office and the UK Statistics Authority. As few understand benefits, he felt free to make any claim and distort any figure. He, like Cameron and Osborne, is a serial user of factoids: the UK has 1% of the world’s population but spends 7% of the world’s welfare. True, but meaningless to compare ourselves with Sudan and other nations with no welfare.
Like Cameron yesterday, IDS denied cuts by pointing to the still rising total welfare bill. But rises in the population and numbers of pensioners, or in soaring housing benefit, are no comfort to those whose benefits certainly have been brutally cut. One legacy will be hundreds of thousands more children projected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to fall into poverty by 2020. His answer was to change the measurement – until the Lords rebelled.
All this makes his sudden fit of truth-telling such a culture shock. He is entirely right: the budget was “deeply unfair”, extra money for the rich taken from poor and disabled people. How startlingly honest when he says his party ignores the poor because they don’t vote Tory. But what’s new?
Duncan Smith has always had a pious way, followed by irritability if challenged. The man’s psyche hardly matters, but he has a stock of self-belief and self-deceit that lets him utter sorrowful words of tough love towards the poor. Little is genuine – not his name, his qualifications, his repeated epiphanies. It’s the third time he has inflicted near-mortal damage on his party – against John Major, then as worst ever leader, now as would-be assassin of a winning leader.
In other times all this would be joy for Labour. But even they must realise this man’s only intent is to get Britain out of the EU. So gripping is the Brexit virus that its victims will sacrifice all other beliefs to pursue it. Here his chosen weapon is truth.