How many more ideologically principled, Thatcher-style conservatives can David Cameron’s centrist political machine afford to alienate?
There is a telling line in James Kirkup’s excellent, fair assessment of the full context behind Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation:
The Prime Minister has already done things that will underpin his eventual legacy: winning the Scottish independence referendum and the general election.
Kirkup probably meant this as praise, but in reality it is the most damning indictment of the current conservative government imaginable – far worse than anything that Iain Duncan Smith said in his resignation letter.
Because it is quite true – some of the greatest accomplishments of David Cameron and his core team of loyalists since 2010 are avoiding having the country disintegrate on their watch, and managing to win a second general election against a historically weak Labour leader pursuing a transparently flawed strategy. If the bar for success in British government has truly been set so low then we are in real trouble.
But David Cameron is not a visionary leader. He came to power in 2010 promising to get Britain through difficult economic times, and was re-elected in 2015 promising to be a reasonably competent Comptroller of Public Services. And to be fair to the man, he never really promised to be a great statesman or a formidable world leader.
Being a doggedly centrist technocrat is all well and good, but eventually people quite rightly start to ask what your government is for, besides acquiring the reins of power and then keeping hold of them for as long as possible. David Cameron’s best answer – the main headline from the Conservative Party’s 2015 general election manifesto – was that we should vote Tory because they have a “plan for every stage of your life“.
Nobody within the Conservative Party seemed to care that this sounded alarmingly socialist and suggestive of the Nanny State – people craved security above freedom, it was believed, and so that’s what would be promised and delivered. More of the status quo, whether the status quo worked well or not.
In other words, as this blog has long been saying and my Conservatives for Liberty colleague Paul Nizinskyj has now eloquently written, David Cameron’s role model is far more the steady pair of hands in tough times rather than the visionary, bloody minded reformer – more Ted Heath than Margaret Thatcher.
I won’t lie: my first reaction on hearing the news that Iain Duncan Smith – who together with Michael Gove is one of the few Conservative heavyweights left with any discernible core conviction – had finally snapped and told George Osborne exactly what to do to himself was “great – anything to make the smug little cretin sweat”.
Because George Osborne is David Cameron with less charisma. And since David Cameron has almost no charisma of his own, that puts George Osborne well into negative territory. Given the fact that his blunders (the Omnishambles Budget, tax credits, PIPs) have done as much to colour the political landscape as his “victories”, I also find his reputation as a master political strategist to be hugely overinflated.
If running to the political centre by jettisoning core conservative principle by adopting left-of-Labour policies like a £9 minimum wage counts as political genius then sure – anybody who can successfully cross-dress as a politician from a different party to pick off some extra votes is a master strategist. But it makes George Osborne a lousy conservative.
Not everything in Osborne’s budget was wrong. Should the thresholds for tax brackets move upwards with inflation? Ideally yes, they should do so every year to neutralise the effect of fiscal drag. But to package measures such as this with reductions in the Personal Independence Payments to hundreds of thousands of disabled people is frankly idiotic.
In some ways, this is emblematic of the ridiculous nature of the Budget spectacle, a choreographed event which encourages the Chancellor of the Exchequer to play god with other minister’s departments, either stealing their flagship ideas (as with academies) or otherwise presenting them out of context. But it also speaks to this government’s utter failure to enact a bold, coherent and unapologetically conservative agenda.
Janet Daley sums it up perfectly:
Mr Osborne’s reputation as a tactical political genius has gone south too. Maybe that’s been the problem all along: his understanding of politics was all about tactics – about messaging and grids, presentational gloss and re-branding – and had nothing to do with fundamental, irreconcilable principle. I am prepared to guess that he quite literally does not understand politicians who are prepared to risk everything for an idea, a conviction: a personal moral mission.
He thinks that they are bloody-minded and naive, with no comprehension of the modern science of winning elections. But that, it seems, is not what the people believe: they are beginning to think that their leaders should stand for something, should have a fundamental sense of what they are in politics for. It’s what they call “authenticity”, and it could turn out to be more of a winner than all the clever marketing techniques in the world. Imagine that.
I understood what Michael Gove was trying to accomplish at Education. And I get what Iain Duncan Smith was wrestling with at the Department for Work and Pensions, and admire his semi-successful efforts to get people into work, and to make that work pay more than dependency on the state. Unlike many others who write sanctimoniously but ignorantly about the issue, I have witnessed the welfare state up close, and seen exactly what our “compassionate” system is capable of doing to people when the dead-eyed state machine is responsible for their lives.
I get all of that. But I have no idea what David Cameron is trying to accomplish as prime minister, or what George Osborne thinks he is doing at the Treasury. Because it certainly isn’t paying down Britain’s debts, as they both like to claim. Nor is it guarding Britain’s sovereignty and place in the world – Cameron has gutted Defence, and is in the process of tricking the British people into voting to remain in what he falsely claims to be a “reformed” European Union.
Neither Cameron or Osborne are motivated by the desire to roll back the state and make the British people more free – their heavy-handed government is all for ever-greater restrictions on both ancient and recent hard-won civil liberties, and is seemingly anxious to sacrifice what freedom we have left upon the altar of “national security”.
There is almost nothing about shrinking the state and expanding personal liberty in this government. But there are lots of policies – cutting state spending on the poorest and weakest in society while continuing to lavish stage largesse on wealthy older people (through non-means tested benefits and the lack of a housing supply policy to benefit the young) – which play right into Labour’s hands, making the Tories (and those who support them) look like nothing more than selfish, grubby opportunists, lining the pockets of the already wealthy while others suffer.
In short, I don’t know what this Conservative government is for, besides trying to stay in power and preventing Labour from stealing it. And apart from the work he was doing in his own department, I suspect that Iain Duncan Smith didn’t know either, no matter how much obligatory praise he heaped on Cameron in his resignation letter.
So I cannot do anything but endorse Iain Duncan Smith’s decision to quit. The final straw was no doubt Downing Street’s insistence that Duncan Smith come out all guns blazing in defence of the welfare cuts in the Budget, while simultaneously planning to walk back the proposals themselves – making IDS look like the crazed ideologue and Cameron / Osborne as the calm voices of reason. Who would want to stick around to be treated in that way?
And if Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation destabilises the government – so what? We currently have a nominally conservative prime minister who is busily enacting Tony Blair’s fourth term of office. We effectively already have a Labour prime minister – or a New Labour one, at least.
Maybe an improbable defeat to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – or a good scare, at least – is the shock the Tories need to dig deep and find a real conservative leader.
Postscript: Iain Duncan Smith’s full resignation letter – which this blog believes was far too generous and courteous – is shown below.
I am incredibly proud of the welfare reforms that the government has delivered over the last five years. Those reforms have helped to generate record rates of employment and in particular a substantial reduction in workless households.
As you know, the advancement of social justice was my driving reason for becoming part of your ministerial team and I continue to be grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to serve. You have appointed good colleagues to my department who I have enjoyed working with. It has been a particular privilege to work with excellent civil servants and the outstanding Lord Freud and other ministers including my present team, throughout all of my time at the Department of Work and Pensions.
I truly believe that we have made changes that will greatly improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged people in this country and increase their opportunities to thrive. 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.
Throughout these years, because of the perilous public finances we inherited from the last Labour administration, difficult cuts have been necessary. I have found some of these cuts easier to justify than others but aware of the economic situation and determined to be a team player I have accepted their necessity.
You are aware that I believe the cuts would have been even fairer to younger families and people of working age if we had been willing to reduce some of the benefits given to better-off pensioners but I have attempted to work within the constraints that you and the chancellor set.
I have for some time 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. While they are defensible in narrow terms, given the continuing deficit, they are not defensible in the way they were placed within a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers. They should have instead been part of a wider process to engage others in finding the best way to better focus resources on those most in need.
I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.
Too often my team and I have been pressured in the immediate run up to a budget or fiscal event to deliver yet more reductions to the working age benefit bill. There has been too much emphasis on money saving exercises and not enough awareness from the Treasury, in particular, that the government’s vision of a new welfare-to-work system could not be repeatedly salami-sliced.
It is therefore with enormous regret that I have decided to resign. You should be very proud of what this government has done on deficit reduction, corporate competitiveness, education reforms and devolution of power. I hope as the government goes forward you can look again, however, at the balance of the cuts you have insisted upon and wonder if enough has been done to ensure “we are all in this together”.
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