IDS’s rebirth is one of the wonders of the age

Widely mocked in the past, the current Work and Pensions Secretary has been tasked with carrying out the Tories' loathsome welfare reforms

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The PDC World Darts Championships concluded last night, and with the bookies going 10/11 the pair at the time of writing, it is far too close to call to allow a guess at whether Phil “The Power” Taylor beat the Dutchman “Mighty” Mike van Gerwen. But one thing Mystic Matt will predict is this: at sporadic intervals during last night’s Sky Sports broadcast, a raucous Alexandra Palace audience welcomed 2013 with a chant aimed at viewers in less cosseted economic regions.

Sung to the tune of La Donna e Mobile, and increasingly popular with a north London crowd as the tournament progressed, the lack of lyrical variety is its least disappointing aspect. “We pay your benefits, we pay your benefits,” it goes, “we pay your benefits, we pay your benefits.”

David Cameron is famously a fellow darts fan – or he was at least back in his varsity days when he knew that you can’t beat a bit of Bullingdon. If he tuned in yesterday, he will not have found this as alarming and depressing as I did. Far from it, he will have been thrilled by the taunting, because in so far as the Prime Minister has any strategy, encouraging us to regard benefit claimants as an innately inferior sub-species is it.

Return to form

We have been, of course, here before. During the 1980s imperium of Mrs Thatcher, when La Donna was anything but mobile as her Cabinet Wets begged her not to create a chasm of bitterness between the southern employed and northern unemployed, home crowds at London football grounds took to teasing visiting supporters on even more poisonous lines. “In your Liverpool slum, in your Liverpool slum,” went a ditty in vogue at Stamford Bridge. “You look in the dustbin for something to eat/You find a dead rat and you think it’s a treat/In your Liverpool slum.”

The debut of such badinage in a darting environment strongly suggests that the Tory policy of recreating such dissent is succeeding and small wonder with Iain Duncan Smith’s Work and Pensions department planting stories about large families on benefits and other supposed wastrels in friendly tabloids on a daily basis. The Government will expect to pluck much more of this low-hanging fruit in the coming months as its assault on tax credits, housing benefit and generally those regarded by some as needy and by others as scroungers intensifies.

This reinvention of IDS, sacked by his party in 2003 on the twin grounds of being preternaturally incompetent and sensationally dim, is one of the wonders of the political age. Shortly after he beat Ken Clarke for the leadership, I met a man almost literally scratching his head in disbelief. “I used to run into him from time to time at Sloaney country house weekends,” he bemusedly muttered. “Nice enough chap, but the thickest ex-Guardsman I ever met. And that’s saying something.” And here he is reborn as the deepest of thinkers on the most intractable of social problems... a gleaming-pated anti-Beveridge presiding over the computerised “universal credit” scheme, due imminently and designed to liberate the long-term unemployed by shaming them to find non-existent jobs. In his defence, he seems genuinely to believe that stigmatising people by obliging them to use vouchers at the shops, and forcing millions without access to a computer to make their claims online, is tough love. Then again, he genuinely believed that he was the Moses to lead the Tories out of the electoral wilderness. Faith can be a peculiar thing.

Repugnant

Whether or not IDS means well – I would offer him the benefit of the doubt, but he’d only blow it on pizzas and satellite telly – the Chancellor palpably does not. George Osborne is staking whatever crumbs remain of his reputation as a clever tactician on fostering the resentment of those with jobs towards those cursed with unemployment. The future 15th baronet makes no pretence about this. So blatant is his ambition to victimise the poor that he tried to have IDS replaced, for being too soft, by a less reconstructed right-winger in the reshuffle.

So far at least, this false distinction between workers and shirkers – those who trudge off to the office or factory, in Osborne’s malevolent fantasy, while the feckless neighbours drowsily prepare for another day in front of Jeremy Kyle – is working as planned. The popularity of this wicked misrepresentation and the dilemma that poses for Ed Miliband is the one visible oasis on an otherwise arid Conservative trek towards the 2015 election.

More than morally repugnant, it is unbelievably dangerous for the country and the Tories themselves. Some 30 years after Thatcher opened the divide, the party has no councillors, let alone MPs, in Liverpool, Newcastle and other Northern cities. Messrs Osborne and Cameron, clad in tails and throwing bread rolls at the time, have either learned nothing from the residual damage inflicted on their electoral chances, or are too preoccupied with short-term survival to care about the consequences of this thuggish reawakening of the monied South’s contempt for the destitute North. A year ushered in by the strains of “We pay your benefits, we pay your benefits” from the mouths of beery London arrows fans does not sound, to these ears, like one that can possibly end well.

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