Fraser Nelson

What does May’s promotion mean for the welfare reform agenda?

What does May's promotion mean for the welfare reform agenda?
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For me, this reshuffle is blemished by the puzzling decision to make Theresa May shadow work and pensions secretary. Welfare reform is, by some margin, the toughest task in politics. If Cameron was genuinely planning to go through with it, he’d realise it would be his single most important departmental appointment. You’re talking about liberating millions of people from welfare dependency. You need someone with the knowledge and energy to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the system – as Milburn did on health and Adonis on city academies. It requires the most energetic, most aggressive and determined member of his team.

That’s why Chris Grayling was such a good hire. He immersed himself in it, met the people, read the studies, did the grunt work himself. If he was to be replaced, why not by Nick Herbert – who has a genuine passion for the task of government reform? As co-founder of the excellent Reform think tank, he would be ideally suited to transforming the DWP. Put him in place now, and a Cameron government could make sure it had a well-trained warrior with the attention to detail required to master the subject, and win the battle with the DWP. Because, believe me, it will be a battle. Instead, Herbert went to agriculture.

Now, I don’t have anything against Theresa May. It’s just that I’m struggling to see how she’s qualified. She’s been around for years and – to put it mildly - does not have a reputation as a nuts-and-bolts, high-energy performer. It doesn’t make sense – if you believe, of course, that Cameron regards welfare reform as being such a high priority. Perhaps he doesn’t.

One explanation I have heard for May’s return is that Cameron thinks the welfare reform agenda has been finished. That Grayling built the machine – and all that remains to be done is for May to run it on autopilot. This fundamentally mistakes the nature of reform: it is a constant, energy-draining, morale-destroying battle. As Andrew Adonis liked to say, there is no autopilot on reform. As soon as you stop giving it your all, inertia takes over. The agenda dies.

The task of welfare reform defeated Tony Blair, and Thatcher didn’t even attempt it. It’s like a form of Perstroika. The DWP has more “clients” than Estonia and Latvia have citizens.  To understand the labyrinthine world of welfare provision you have to spend months getting to know the people, the mechanics of welfare-to-work providers, the theories, the studies, you have to know what worked in Australia and didn’t in Wisconsin.  Quite simply, welfare reform is one of the most academic jobs in government. It is a world unto itself, and one that takes years to explore and understand properly. It has been unreformed for so long because politicians tend not to have attention spans that last this long. Welfare is a long-term problem that is seldom addressed by the short-term political cycle. The DWP system, with its many branches and divisions, doesn’t need to defeat ministers, just outlast them.

I would love to be proved wrong here. Perhaps May will reveal a whole new side to her character, a hitherto undiscovered interest the IDS welfare agenda and be able to already explain how the Freud review differs from the Wisconsin approach. This could, of course, be the making of her. Or perhaps this will be seen as the day when the Tories – like Blair – figured welfare reform was too bloody a task and one best left for a later, undefined day.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

Topics in this articlePolitics