Iain Duncan Smith must have dreamed about the moment he would stun the Blair government into silence. Derision was the government’s main response to his interventions when he was Conservative leader and, even a year after his ‘quiet man’ conference speech, Labour MPs still amused themselves by saying ‘sshh’ when he rose to speak in the Chamber. Now, after three years spent thinking and rebuilding his political identity, he has returned to the front line with a report on social breakdown — and one to which Labour seems quite unable to respond.
IDS’s Social Justice Commission was set up to address the break-up of families, a social trend which has vastly accelerated under Labour. Remarkably, no one seems to have programmed the government computer to answer this line of attack. When responding to Mr Duncan Smith, ministers simply say that they have created new jobs and increased child benefit. All this is true — and still violent crime, teenage pregnancy and youth unemployment are higher than they were in 1997.
This is precisely the conundrum of New Labour: its extraordinary failure to convert prosperity into greater social cohesion. And the party itself (which for so long thought that money was the answer to all social ills) does not quite know why. The last thing it seems to have expected was Mr Duncan Smith to return from the political grave to attack Labour on its home turf. It was too bizarre a proposition to be taken seriously: that a failure like IDS might have forged for the Tories a weapon that might help them win the next election.
David Cameron is very much up for the fight. Last week he addressed the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs and warned them he would be taking an uncompromising line of attack when Mr Duncan Smith’s report was published. His speech at the last party conference, he reminded MPs, included the most robustly pro-family remarks made by a major politician in 30 years. To declare the importance of the two-parent family, he continued, might sound moralising. Too bad, Mr Cameron said unashamedly: it was and would continue to be at the very centre of his personal definition of Conservatism.
Gordon Brown is not worried. I am told he finds the idea of being attacked by the Conservatives on poverty too absurd to take seriously. Has he not lifted 700,000 children out of poverty since 1997? The one Tory attack he is concerned about is over taxation — and he has successfully tricked Mr Cameron into ruling out upfront promises of tax cuts before the next election.
Yet other Cabinet members are more worried. John Hutton, the Work and Pensions Secretary — and no friend of the Chancellor — has been arguing that it would be a grave strategic error to stay silent on the family debate and allow the ground to be colonised by the Conservatives. The government, he believes, should take the lead in this debate rather than wait for the Conservatives to catch up and then overtake Labour. Mr Hutton has already gone public saying that two-parent families offer children the best chances, and he wants to change the benefit system to favour marriage. The Tories, he believes, can easily be outflanked.
First, for all the strength of Mr Duncan Smith’s work, he remains an outsider in the new Tory regime, with no guarantee that his personal agenda will be adopted by Mr Cameron’s inner circle. His final report is not due until next summer and the Conservatives are at least a year away from developing hard policy — leaving Labour plenty of time to develop its own response. Also, many in the shadow Cabinet do not share Mr Cameron’s enthusiasm and many remain rather cold towards Mr Duncan Smith himself.
Already rumours are being put about that Mr Duncan Smith wants to be social security secretary. ‘But that will never happen,’ says one of his detractors. ‘Do you seriously think Cameron would spoil the team photo of his first Cabinet by including that slaphead?’ Another says that if this pro-family agenda is to fly as a Tory campaign, ‘it cannot have IDS’s name attached to it’. Nor is Philip Hammond, the Tory welfare spokesman, a cheerleader for the IDS approach.
Mr Hutton’s faith that the Tory party will stay divided is matched by his belief that Mr Cameron will come up only with cosmetic solutions. His research shows that the transferable tax allowance from wife to husband, which Mr Cameron has proposed, has not worked anywhere in the world where it has been tried. So while the Tories grasp around for policies, Mr Hutton wishes Labour to be seen as the party of firm substance — moving ahead with the family agenda while the Tories argue about it.
Mr Duncan Smith says his family agenda is not directed against single mothers, but rather against absentee fathers. These were precisely the villains Mr Hutton had in mind this week as he spoke about the child support system. He plans to force fathers to sign birth certificates. More will come in the new year, including, he hopes, an explicit endorsement of the two-parent family as a weapon in the fight against child poverty.
From the Chancellor: silence. Mr Brown abolished the married couples allowance in his first Budget and his tax credits are designed for and encourage an atomised society, with no recognition of marriage. He has trouble addressing his failures, and the problem of an underclass created by his benefits system is one he is unlikely ever to recognise. But he has proposed a move towards Scandinavian levels of childcare — specifically maternity leave and extending school hours later into the afternoon. This will surely be packaged as a ‘pro-family initiative’.
For years the Conservatives avoided mentioning the family for fear of being seen as censorious. But, in his first year, Mr Cameron has done enough not to be written off as a Dickensian prude on this issue. I am told that whatever he proposes for marriage will apply to gay couples and civil partnerships — an approach which may, in itself, provoke fresh ruptures in his party. Such discontent — along with another year of inaction — is what Mr Hutton is banking on.
Even so, Mr Duncan Smith can — at the very least — claim with justice to have moved the terms of political debate on to his ground. He has left politicians heading for the Christmas recess thinking about the true foundations of society; whether family is a stronger force than welfare and — indeed — whether Chesterton had it right in his ‘Christmas Poem’:
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.