Talking Politics

Iain Duncan Smith is no longer fit-for-work

What are Iain Duncan Smith's redeeming qualities?

Today's public accounts committee report shines a spotlight on a department which is out of control. Bad news is ignored. Vast sums of money are authorised by personal assistants for work which has not always been specified. Up to £425 million has been wasted and may need to be written-off, including £140 million on IT equipment which is no longer suitable for the project. The left hand does not know, or even seem to care, what the right hand is doing.

Duncan Smith has undertaken the most ambitious restructuring of the welfare system in a generation and it is blowing up in his face. The report was one of the most damning to be published this year. Duncan Smith's response, according to the Times, was to demand MPs on the committee pin the blame on his permanent secretary, Robert Devereux.

It's all a day in the life for the work and pensions secretary, whose relationship with the truth is as tenuous as George Best's relationship with sobriety.

He claimed the benefits cap had forced 8,000 people into work. This earned a slap on the wrist from the Office for National Statistics, which said it was not possible to find any causal link between the cap and those finding work. His response was very revealing.

"I have a belief I am right," he told Radio 4.

"You cannot absolutely prove those two things are connected – you cannot disprove what I said. I believe this to be right. I believe we are already seeing people going back to work who were not going back to work until this group were capped."

It's worth reading that quote twice. It is the product of a mind which is fundamentally unconcerned by reality, a loop playing constantly to itself.

It's just the tip of the iceberg. He said that every week half a million new jobs come through at the Jobcentre. This was false. He said Britain had the highest rate of jobless households in Europe. This was false. He said 70% of the four million jobs created when Labour was in office were taken by people from overseas. This was false. He claimed Shelter defined homelessness as two children sharing a room. This was false.

The list goes on and on.

It's all part of a pattern that goes back to the start of his career, when Michael Crick found several inaccuracies in his CV. He said he had attended the University of Perugia, when it was in fact the  Università per Stranieri – an institution which did not grant degrees. He said he attended Dunchurch College of Management, when in fact it was weekend courses at GEC Marconi's staff college.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled Duncan Smith's back-to-work programme, which forced claimants to work for high street chains like Poundland for free, was illegal following a government appeal. It had failed to give recipients enough information about sanctions faced by people being told they had to work without a wage.

His response was to say that he was "very pleased that the supreme court unanimously upheld" his programme. "Ultimately, this judgment confirms that it is right that we expect people to take getting into work seriously," he added. Surely the British public are entitled to something less misleading than that? Is it too much to ask for even a hint of contrition for having broken the law, rather than rank evasion and a steadfast refusal to accept fault?

He went out of his way to smear the reputation of Cait Reilly, a 24-year-old who brought the case. Reilly had been volunteering at a Birmingham museum, hoping it would one day turn into a paid position. She was not overly keen on dropping that voluntary role to work for free in Poundland. Duncan Smith went on television and suggested she was part of "a group of people out there who think they are too good for this kind of stuff". For a secretary of state to treat a young person in this way is unspeakable.

Cynicism and Machiavellianism are common traits in politics. Many of the greatest politicians, from Churchill downwards, have been quite capable of making a case by focusing relentlessly on the attributes which most flatter them. But the smears against young people trying to make their way, the casual misuse of the facts, the glib indifference to the proper functioning of a system which affects the lives of the least privileged, is of a different magnitude altogether.

He's not even smart enough to pull it off. Matthew D'Ancona's history of the coalition sees George Osborne comment that "you see Iain giving presentations and realise he's just not clever enough". Last month John Major warned that the work and pensions secretary's welfare reform programme was "enormously complicated".

He went on: "Unless he is very lucky, which he may not be, or a genius, which the last time I looked was unproven, he may get some of it wrong."

Duncan Smith's reply was belligerent, inelegant and supremely thin-skinned. "Well, as I say, I never really get too fussed about what people think about their own intellects," he said. It is, you may have noticed, a sentence which means nothing. Or, at best, is so lacking in meaning as to not be worth saying. "I'm always happy to be in awe of someone whose own intellect delivered us the cones hotline, I must say." The reference to Major's silliest policy was childlike and out of place. Barely anyone even remembers the cone hotline. But seeing as he wishes to reflect on the past, perhaps his audience should do so too.

Think back. When did Iain Duncan Smith ever achieve anything? Even Osborne, who plunged this country back into recession, can at least point to that time he called Gordon Brown's bluff on an election.  Duncan Smith has been at the frontline of British politics for years and he has nothing to show for it.

He was the most incapable leader of the Conservative party in recent memory. He was inadequate in PMQs and his conference flourish that "the quiet man is turning up the volume" is still the butt of jokes a decade later. His comment to the mutineers in his own party was just as weird, but a little darker: "My message is simple and stark, unite or die". They chose to do neither.

Expelled from the leadership, he seduced the easily seduced by using the words 'social justice' while promoting an aggressive Victorian-era programme which had more to do with a glorified notion of the Protestant work ethic than practical solutions to poverty and welfare-dependency. And now he smears his opponents, whether they be MPs, young women trying to find work or the massed ranks of the unemployed recast as feckless scroungers.

We might worry less about his own personal failings if they were not being replicated with such uncanny precision at his department. But the refusal to hear bad news, the siege mentality, the waste of funds, the arrogance and bullying with which welfare reform is being pursued are all indistinguishable from the character of the man presiding over it.

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