If he didn’t have such impressive form as a dim and petulant interpreter of statistics, you might take Iain Duncan Smith for the summer’s first high-profile victim of heatstroke. Mental confusion is one symptom of this dangerous condition, while the NHS Direct website lists “problems speaking to or understanding people” and “seeing or hearing things that aren’t real” among the others.
The junior doctor who caught the Works and Pensions Secretary’s interview with John Humphrys on Monday might have been sufficiently concerned to ask a registrar about the need to hospitalise him, and rehydrate him by intravenous drip. “What you’re doing, as always in the BBC,” he rebuked Humpo after hearing from a Haringey woman, “Rebecca”, that his benefit reforms cost her £98 per week. “You’re seeking out lots of cases from people who are politically motivated to say this is wrong.” This will have rung medical alarm bells on the mental confusion front.
For one thing, Rebecca was motivated not by political allegiance, but the even more primal force that is the fear of poverty, or poverty itself. For another, what exactly did the gleaming-pated chump imagine was his own motivation in claiming again that the housing benefit cap is propelling hordes of the unemployed back to work? What with him being a politician, might it have been political? Just a wild thought.
We can certainly rule out poverty as a motivational force for this benefits scrounger of sorts. The victim of his feckless dependence on housing benefit is not the state, but his father-in-law, the 5th Baron Cottesloe, in whose Buckinghamshire ancestral home Iain lives rent-free. I cannot say by what multiple the rent on the Grade II-listed Tudor house – with tennis court and swimming pool in its five acres of grounds – would exceed the new limit of £26,000. But Lord Cottesloe might reasonably expect to rake in between £120,000 to £150,000 per annum.
To lay that rookie doc’s fears entirely to rest, I should state that IDS has the identical problems speaking to interviewers in a civil and adult manner, and understanding that it is their job to question his interpretation of statistics, during a heatwave or a cold snap. The climate has no impact on his gift for hearing and seeing things in the figures that are not real. Come rain, come shine, the man is a dummy whose oversight of this infinitely complex area of social policy hints at a secret prime ministerial commitment to affirmative action.
Yet even IDS is not so thick that he fails to appreciate the political benefits that motivate him to make assertions of the sort dismissed earlier this year by the UK Statistics Authority as rancid cobblers (technically: unsupported by the findings of his own department).
The punters, 71 per cent of whom support his housing benefit cap, love this policy to bits. This is depressing, even tragic, but the more families are uprooted from high-rent London communities and relocated to areas entirely alien to them, with the inevitably consequent rise in misery and mental illness, the better for the Tories. For them, the sun has got his hat on, and hip, hip, hip hooray.
With an ICM poll showing a Conservative recovery to parity with Labour, the sense that the PM will win the 2015 election outright on the “beastly and beastlier to the deprived” platform intensifies. One had hoped that Mr Cameron was better than this, but the arrival of Lynton Crosby as his omnipotent electoral tactician reveals that the Prime Minister might also be politically motivated.
Mr Duncan Smith says he “believes” he is right that the benefit cap is driving hordes of the jobless to find work, and bully for him. Mr Tony Blair believed in his bones that Saddam had WMD. Psychiatrists cite the conviction that the simple act of believing something magically makes that thing true as evidence of sociopathy. Yet they also cite charm and a sharp intellect as symptoms, and while that may work for Mr Tony, it rules out the diagnosis for IDS. He is not a sociopath. He is a very silly boy.
There are sillier still. Take Brooks Newmark, the Tory MP for Braintree. If the name sounds like it belongs to a preppy baritone in an Ivy League barber’s shop quartet, it probably is. Mr Newmark is a Connecticut-born, Harvard-educated former merchant banker who made his bones at Lehman Brothers. “I think many people would be in favour of bringing it down to the real average post-tax pay,” he says of his wish to reduce the benefits cap even further, to £20,000. “ I can’t see Essex Man complaining if that happened.”
Nor can I. Mind you, I can’t see Essex Man moaning about the abolition of income tax or the reintroduction of the birch for the offence of being an immigrant. Whether government by Essex Man is something to be welcomed is anyone’s guess. But it appears to have arrived, thanks in large measure to that part-time Essex Man Iain Duncan Smith, the MP for Chingford with the rent-free Tudor home in Bucks.
And while our junior doctor will be relieved that IDS hasn’t been playing tennis on the ancestral lawn or falling asleep by the pool in the broiling heat, some of us will be feverishly fearful about that.