A petulant self-serving hypocrite
Published by The Mail on Sunday (20th March, 2016)
It is hard to remember a more bitter recent departure from Government, with a brutal exchange of letters underlining the depth of discontent on both sides. Iain Duncan Smith’s note of Cabinet resignation was written to cause maximum discomfort. Then David Cameron hit back hard, stating his departing Work and Pensions Secretary had signed up to the controversial disability benefit cuts at the centre of the furore.
I agree with key points made by Mr Duncan Smith. Last week’s Budget sent a terrible message to the country, with tax cuts for higher earners funded by slashing benefits for people with disabilities. And he is right to argue perks for wealthier pensioners such as free bus passes, prescriptions and television licences should have been targets for cuts before support for poorer and sicker people.
But I have no sympathy for his stance. Indeed, it deserves to diminish further the standing of the worst Tory leader in modern history. For this was not a display of fine principle by a compassionate conservative, but a self-serving show of petulance and crude personal politics.
If he was so alarmed by the idea of cutting disability funding while benefiting the better off, why did he only quit after the row over Personal Independence Payment (PIP) broke out rather than before the Budget when he might have stopped the move? Then why go when the Government was, rightly, making an unusually rapid reverse?
And if this was such a concern, many might wonder why he remained so long in his well-paid post. After all, his Government lowered taxes for high earners and big businesses amid other measures inflicting pain on disabled people such as the bedroom tax and botched benefit assessments.
But it goes further than this. Five years ago I was forced to write an article about how Mr Duncan Smith’s department seemed to be deliberately demonising people with disabilities.
As the parent of a daughter with profound disabilities, I could not ignore hate crime and abuse rising on the streets, amid a coarsening dialogue and changing climate for disabled people. Such things should trump any tribal loyalties. There was a constant drip of stories implying vast numbers of bogus disability claimants, benefits being doled out willy-nilly and taxpayers funding cars for thousands of children with minor behavioural disorders.
Many seemed to emanate from the Department for Work and Pensions, which was also manipulating statistics to win support for its drive to cut costs and benefit theft. In fact, even after six years of Mr Duncan Smith’s tenure in this Department, the Government’s own data shows that errors by bureaucrats wasted more money from key disability benefit budgets than was lost to fraud or false claims.
Meanwhile, life remains tough for most people with disabilities, many of whom remain largely excluded from mainstream society. The statistics on everything from jobs to basic social interaction remain grim; some even die in hospitals from the blinkered attitudes that still blight society.
Yes, there has been a slight upturn in employment. But I am afraid for most disabled people, the idea of Mr Duncan Smith as their doughty champion would induce only the most bitter laughter. It is always best to judge someone by their deeds, not their smooth and sensitive words – especially in politics.
There is urgent need to control public spending, eliminate waste and ensure benefits are targeted on those most in need. And the increasing spend on disability is worrying, but also a by-product of rising numbers in an ageing society amid medical advances that must be met.
The Treasury’s attempt to tweak PIP hit the wrong people. A previous Tory government recognised the need for targeted payments to help disabled people play a fuller role in society.
Recipients have had their needs assessed. But the rising bills alarmed George Osborne – especially after his imposition of an arbitrary welfare cap on overall spending, bust by his fiasco over cutting tax credits.
Yet before his sudden conversion caused him to flounce out of office, Mr Duncan Smith signed up to the flawed PIP reform, promoted it and presented the consultation paper to Parliament – just as he had pushed other attempts to save money in this area, such as scrapping a fund for people with severe disabilities.
It appears the reality is that Mr Duncan Smith had become disenchanted and, according to sources, was looking for a way out. There are rumours he confirmed this at a private lunch last month, which would rather undermine his stated position. Westminster gossip suggested he might be dumped or moved after the Brexit ballot in June if the country voted to stay in, which should ensure Mr Cameron stays in Downing Street.
Mr Osborne is rightly being criticised for the disability benefits disaster. Mr Duncan Smith, who has not always had the best relationship with the Chancellor, had cause to feel aggrieved if he felt he was being forced to take the flak after an embarrassing U-turn.
Yet at the end of the day his sudden departure seems to be more about Tory feuding over Brexit and a fight for the soul of the party. If true, this makes Mr Duncan Smith’s treatment of disabled people even worse, since they would have become just a prop for his political machinations.
Some of his closest allies on the Right have long resented Cameron’s leadership. One told me they were preparing a challenge to be launched straight after polls closed last May if the Election led to a hung Parliament.
This is a dangerous moment for the Party. Regardless of motives, Mr Duncan Smith’s move underlines how the referendum on Europe threatens to blow open divisions that played a role in deposing the previous two Tory Prime Ministers.
After six years in Government there are plenty of disgruntled figures with frustrated ambitions. And thanks to Boris Johnson, the Brexit debate has become a Tory leadership battle.
Yet this is also a dangerous moment for the country. Not over the vote on Europe, which ultimately makes little real difference for Britain despite all the scaremongering on both sides. But because Labour has been taken over by a hard-Left cabal that would be disastrous if it ever won power.
These are turbulent times, both at home, where the economy remains in delicate state, and abroad, where Europe struggles with a terrible refugee crisis and the Middle East is in tragic meltdown. The last thing Britain needs is instability under a fragile government run by a party at war. Mr Duncan Smith might like to reflect on this while plotting his next move.