It looks as if Iain Duncan Smith has resigned in protest against cuts to disability benefits that he proposed – after the Prime Minister and Chancellor had already decided to abandon them.
In fact, if you read Duncan Smith’s resignation letter carefully, his decision made more sense than that. He quit in protest against tax cuts favouring the better off that George Osborne announced at the same time – tax cuts that are not being abandoned. Confused? I certainly am.
David Cameron and Osborne did the right but incompetent thing: announcing Duncan Smith’s cuts in disability benefits and then retreating after the Budget when it became clear that Conservative MPs wouldn’t support them. While Duncan Smith did the right but disloyal thing: going along with the Budget tax cuts for higher-rate taxpayers but then resigning two days later in the fit of pique of someone who dislikes the Chancellor and the European Union with equal intensity.
Cameron, in his acid reply to Duncan Smith’s resignation letter, said he was “puzzled and disappointed”. One of the things that puzzled him, I’m told, is that Duncan Smith didn’t ask for a meeting to discuss his concerns.
However right I might think Duncan Smith is to object to a Budget that made people earning more than £42,000 a year better off, it is hard to see why that straw should break his back when the hay bales of cuts to the incomes of the low paid were borne. Those cuts are still planned, as was confirmed by the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) on 17 March. All the measures Osborne has announced since the election will take most from the working poor between now and 2020. The cuts to tax credits defeated by the House of Lords in November have only been postponed, not abolished. The Budget confirmed that they are still pencilled in. According to the IFS, the poorest fifth of households will lose 7 per cent of their income over the next four years. But the Budget added a tax cut for the rich that the Chancellor had the effrontery to describe as “social justice delivered by Conservative means”.
Yet the reasons for Duncan Smith’s departure are more complicated than his late conversion to egalitarian social democracy. He has smarted for years from Osborne’s condescension, knowing that the Chancellor thinks him stupid. The other thing that he really cares about – apart from a confused Tory concern about poverty – is Europe. It seems implausible that one of Duncan Smith’s calculations is not that his resignation would weaken the Government in the referendum campaign.
In all of this, the towering absence is that of a credible opposition. Diane Abbott’s claim that Duncan Smith was Jeremy Corbyn’s first “scalp” was interesting only because it was so risible. The debate about social justice is one that is happening only in the Conservative Party, just as is the debate about Europe. The Labour Party might as well not exist.
In his response to the Budget, Corbyn rightly accused Osborne of wanting to balance the Government’s books on the backs of disabled people and the working poor. If the Chancellor fails in this mission, it will not be because of the official Opposition but because of centrist Conservative MPs and the high establishment of the House of Lords.
On Europe, it is striking that the huge question of 13 years ago was whether the five tests to join the euro had been met. Today, the momentous decision is whether the UK should be a member of the EU at all. We have moved on to a decision about whether we should be in or out of the whole thing. Whether or not you think we should be in the EU, you cannot deny that the centre of gravity of the European question in British politics has moved a long way. The reason is that the Conservatives won the election.
Duncan Smith’s resignation confirms that the centre has shifted to the right. Not because it has come to something when someone as right-wing as Duncan Smith storms out because Cameron and Osborne are too right-wing. The truth of this resignation is more complicated than that, and the Prime Minister and Chancellor have a strong centrist pitch. Cameron has promised an “all-out assault on poverty” while Osborne stole the national living wage while Labour wasn’t looking. Neither is convincing. Cutting in-work benefits for those on low incomes is a curious way to fight the war against poverty, and the national living wage fails to compensate. But they look like compassionate Conservatism while they allow another shuffle to the right.
Duncan Smith’s departure confirms that politics is now a battle between Conservatives. That means that the centre of gravity of British politics is further to the right than it has been for a long time.