Political rhetoric, as any Churchillian will tell you, is not automatically a malign thing. Even the most watertight of arguments requires a little razzle-dazzle to hit home. But as the bitterness of the row over the Government’s welfare reforms has intensified, the rhetoric that has taken hold has been the worst kind: rhetoric not as persuasion, but as stunt. Rhetoric which reproduces in words the kind of subtlety that John Gummer displayed when he made his daughter eat that BSE burger; rhetoric which doesn’t seek to highlight an argument’s virtues so much as bludgeon you as weak-minded if you disagree.
This is why the petition asking Iain Duncan Smith to live on £53 a week has justice to it: those willing to say anything can hardly complain if they are asked to live by their words. Actually, though, the petition could go further. So Grant Shapps says he gets it because his two sons share a bedroom, even though he uses another bedroom as a study? Well, he’s either being disingenuous, or he’s genuinely ignorant that there’s no home office allowance when the “bedroom tax” is calculated. So let’s stick him in a council flat with a room fewer than the optimum – perhaps with IDS as his notional partner – and see how he gets along when the property in question doesn’t have exposed timbering.
In fact, let’s not leave it at that. Let’s give one of our odd couple a disability, and drastically reduce their benefit. Let’s see how they handle the adjustment that two million low-income workers must make from paying no council tax to paying £250 a year. And when the Shapps-Duncan Smiths get their inevitable divorce, let’s see how they navigate it without legal aid. Perhaps George Osborne could come round and tell their parish priest that his concerns for this couple are the “depressingly predictable” carping of the usual “vested interests”.
The crazy thing about this is that you can reasonably defuse the preceding fantasy with a simple admission: for some decent people who have never been lazy in their lives, what’s coming is going to be really bad. You don’t even have to agree that it shouldn’t happen. You just have to stop pretending that it’s a doddle.
But Shapps and Osborne and IDS can’t do that: they have founded their argument on the division between strivers and shirkers, people with anti-gravity bootstraps who could manage on £53 a week and people who just don’t have it in them. This is why, when he’s asked if he could make ends meet under those circumstances, IDS obeys his primal political instinct and says, “If I had to, I would.” This is why he would never think of saying: “I don’t know, because I’ve never had to. And I know that that makes me a lucky man.”