Nick Cohen

The conservative case against Iain Duncan Smith

The conservative case against Iain Duncan Smith
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Labour held a debate on Iain Duncan Smith’s stewardship of the welfare state today. Tory MPs backed their man, as did the Conservative journalists, who have told their readers that despite the many disappointments of the Cameron administration, Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms make the excruciating experience worthwhile.

If Conservatives were sincere, they would want him out of office now. They would suspect, as I suspect, that he has a Napoleon complex. Once the poor chap saw himself as a potential Prime Minister. Now he sees himself as a great reformer. As he no more has the capacity to be the latter than the former, Duncan Smith is engaging in crimes Conservatives fool themselves into believing are only committed by the left.

1. Wasting public money

You are against that, aren’t you? Didn’t you go into politics to protect abused taxpayers? Not when your own people are the abusers, apparently.

The Universal Credit fiasco exemplifies Duncan Smith’s narcissistic failure to admit and remedy mistakes. As Computer Weekly — a far better guardian of the taxpayer than the Conservative backbenches or press, incidentally – has said, Duncan Smith proceeded with a vast and complicated IT project without learning the lessons from the IT disasters of the Labour years.

The inevitable result, as Labour said today, is that after '£612m [was] spent, including £131m written off or "written down", the introduction of Universal Credit is now years behind schedule, with no clear plan for how, when, or whether full implementation will be achievable or value for money'.

Duncan Smith did not take responsibility for his actions. He did not scrap his failing system and start again, as an honest man would have done it. The open acceptance of a mistake would have left him vulnerable. Maybe all those mocking Conservatives, who dismissed his leadership as a joke in 2003, would have resurfaced and asked: If this man was unfit to lead the Conservative Party when it was in opposition, and had power over no one’s life, why should he now lead a spending ministry with the power to bring misery into the lives of millions?

It is a good question, after all. And some of us would like to hear your answer. Computer Weekly reported that the Ministerial Oversight Group, which had to examine the Universal Credit mess, had two options: To throw away the IT developed by Duncan Smith’s suppliers, and start again; or to salvage as much as possible in the short term, while developing a new 'enhanced' IT system.

[Francis] Maude favoured starting again, with the Government Digital Service (GDS) that he controls taking the lead. Duncan Smith felt that writing off so much IT was politically unacceptable.

Just so. Duncan Smith would have looked a fool if he had scrapped his project. His career might have been in danger. So he dodged the choice, and hid the losses by making the public pay two computer systems, while using government lawyers to stop the gory details of the failure seeing daylight. The eventual bill to the public will be the cost of saving his face. Significantly, Computer Weekly reports that the Government Digital Service (GDS) wants no more direct involvement with the development of the 'enhanced IT' required to roll out universal credit. The GDS is one of the successes of this administration. Engineers praise its staff for learning from the mistakes of the past and ensuring that – after all these years – Whitehall keeps IT costs under control. That its public servants want as little as possible to do with Duncan Smith tells you all you need to know about his inability to put the taxpayers’ interest first.

2 He loves the grands projets and hates the boring detail

If you object that building a welfare system that makes work pay is a grand idea, I will reply that grand ideas still have to work. In Sunday’s Observer I quoted a story astonished Labour politicians tell of Duncan Smith’s lack of interest in the practicalities of policy:

'A few years ago, Duncan Smith met Douglas Alexander, Rachel Reeves and Stephen Timms. He enthused about his belief in a universal credit that would merge taxes and benefits. He would free 6 million people from the poverty traps of welfare dependency and show them that work made them better off.

'The Labour politicians admitted that universal credit was a fine idea. They had thought about implementing it many times. But you had to merge incompatible IT systems and find a way of updating the information on millions of people so that Whitehall knew almost instantaneously how much they were earning, what taxes they should pay and what benefits they should receive. Reforming a complex system would take years. If Duncan Smith rushed it he would be engaging in the vast and self-defeating social engineering the right accused the utopian left of forcing on the human race.

'Duncan Smith would have none of it. The technicalities were trifles. All that was needed was the political will. And he, Iain Duncan Smith, the man of destiny, had the will to make it work. "We looked at him as if he was mad," one of the participants told me.'

You see a similar insouciance everywhere you look. The government now admits that over 700,000 people are still waiting for Duncan Smith’s Work Capability Assessments. The Office for Budget Responsibility said in March that the Government was expected to spend £800 million more than it predicted only last December, to make the failed system work.

The Public Accounts Committee reported that the introduction of Duncan Smith’s Personal Independence Payments have created 'uncertainty, stress and financial costs for claimants' as well as additional budgetary pressures. The department is assessing just 7,000 people per month.

Beyond these bureaucratic failures, lies Duncan Smith’s Work Programme that has failed to meet its targets; and a bedroom tax that forces people to move to homes that do not exist. The right is fond of accusing the left of imposing utopian schemes on a public it treats as laboratory rats. Duncan Smith has ensured that the left can pick up that missile and hurl it back.

3. His spin puts New Labour to shame.

As it tries to cover up its master’s mistakes, the Department of Work and Pensions press office has become notorious among journalists for news management. I had a row with one of its press officers recently, in which he could not bring himself to admit that the Supreme Court had criticised Duncan Smith, even though the Supreme Court judgement was on the record and publicly available. He was not a civil servant, impartially dispensing information, but a taxpayer-sponsored propagandist.

Duncan Smith has recruited one Richard Caseby, a former News International exec, who tried to cover Rupert Murdoch’s worthless backside during the hacking scandal. I cannot see why the public must pay his salary. He is not their servant. He’s the Conservative Party’s servant, as he proved when he suggested that national newspapers should not allow the Guardian to join their proposed press regulator. A civil servant has no business talking like that. Taxpayers do not pay him to pursue his vendettas, and shoot his overactive mouth off on matters which are no concern of his department. The head of the Civil Service acknowledged as much when he said that Caseby went 'beyond what I would expect of a civil servant'.

In that last decade Tories went on at considerable length about Labour’s spin machine, ZaNuLiebor B:Liar and all the rest of it. Where are they now that Duncan Smith and his creatures spin and manipulate and threaten and obfuscate? If you mean what you say, you should want Duncan Smith gone, and apologise for allowing him within 100 miles of power in the first place.

Written byNick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of What's Left and You Can't Read This Book.

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