The Sketch: Damned if I can work out what their plan is

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The Independent Online

"We have no plans to abolish child benefit." Was that true? Yes, but in the sense that "No decision has been made to invade Iraq" was true. Preparations went on for a year but the "decision" was made only when the orders were signed. In truth, there don't seem to be "plans" in what is obviously government by inspiration.

It's possible to detect the genius of Oliver Letwin behind this pleasantly amateur set-up. But the lack of organisation isn't always a plus.

Where are the lines to take on child benefit? In Iain Duncan Smith's welfare speech, he confined himself to saying it was "tough but fair". That isn't a complete rebuttal of the five million words printed yesterday saying it was a catastrophe for the middle class. The media search for victims has been wonderfully productive.

Universal benefits are a brilliant Labour strategy to plait the middle class into the benefit system. That really was a plan. George's announcement is the way to give the bourgeoisie an ascendancy in the rows to come: "Oh, stop moaning, we've all taken a hit."

The argument is: "You can't expect them down there to give up their outrageous housing benefits unless you give up something yourselves." We need half a dozen variations of "We're all in this together". Where is the communications campaign? Is Andy Coulson otherwise engaged? Is he leaving it up to individual ministers? Has George Osborne issued the lines to take? And would people take them if he had?

It may be that the Chancellor's personal qualities don't engender affectionate support. We are all toads croaking beneath his harrow, and he doesn't mind letting us know that.

Anyway, IDS was there for his own moment of triumph and wasn't inclined to share the limelight. He'd been off in the wilderness for years to atone for his leadership shame.

Now he's back, with a big plan to reorganise benefits, and he might for all we know have cracked it. He told us much about the effects ("work will always pay") but so little about the plan itself it's impossible to say.

People liked it when he put his head on one side and said, "The vulnerable have nothing to fear." And there was a lot of the old granola everyone's been saying for two decades about rewarding this and aspiring to that.

They certainly do have a plan – but from IDS's speech I'm damned if I know what it is. Let's take it on trust.

In a fringe meeting Francis Maude told us about the work they were doing to tap the "hidden wealth of deprived communities". It's that Big Society theme that they sprang on us at the election launch.

I can't tell you specifically what that work is or what it has produced. But they've only been at it a couple of years and it would be wrong to hurry them. In your own time, gentlemen.