This will be one of those columns that leaves the writer, and possibly the reader, wanting a shower. How could anyone with pretensions to compassion attack a man who has been through hell with a desperately disabled child, for his treatment of the disabled, without feeling dirty? On the other hand, how can anyone with an average share of humanity look on the Ultimate Cage Fight between George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith without feeling baffled and enraged by the Prime Minister?
Cynically, you can admire David Cameron’s legerdemain. The art of conjuring, as the newly late Paul Daniels knew, is diverting the eye away from the action. Whether by chance or cunning, Cameron has achieved this. Ever since Friday’s shock resignation reminded him of the need to beware the IDS of March, most attention focuses on the former Works and Pensions Secretary’s motives and implications for the Chancellor’s leadership ambitions. Almost no one has dwelt on how Cameron sanctioned the sustained raid on disabled benefits which Duncan Smith cites, a little unconvincingly, as the sole catalyst for his flounce.
This reaction reminds us that Cameron’s political hero is Mr Tony Blair (“the master”) who was so adroit at using lightning rods to spare himself the heat. Until exposed by the invasion of Iraq, he protected his reputation by having others (Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Cherie, even Gordon Brown) take the heat generated by things for which only a Prime Minister should ultimately be accountable.
To some extent, all governments operate in this way. Whatever Harry Truman claimed to believe, any leader’s guiding tenet is that the buck stops somewhere else. But Blair enforced this more skilfully than most, and it permitted him to cling to the pretty straight kinda guy facade long after it should have been apparent that he was a rogue and a charlatan.
Cameron has emulated his role model by outsourcing domestic policy almost in its entirety to an overmighty Chancellor, allowing him to play the part of innocent bystander when he chooses. If a Budget enriches high earners and cosseted pensioners by further impoverishing the poor – well, it’s CEO Osborne’s job to write the Budget, isn’t it, and non-executive Chairman Dave’s merely to endorse it?
But where Blair’s enmity with Brown gave him genuine cover from Budget disasters, Cameron’s friendship with Osborne offers him none. These two really are in it together. And what precisely it is that they’re in, or certainly ought to be, is a quicksand quagmire of their own creation.
After six years as their useful idiot, prosecuting their jihad against the vulnerable in the heart-rendingly naive belief that he was freeing the needy from the shackles of dependency, Duncan Smith finally snapped. You cannot discount wounded pride as a contributory factor with such a brittle, petulant man. Anticipating the sack after the EU referendum may have played its part. But whatever cabal of reasons lay behind his resignation, and however absurd it sounded coming from the frontman for the bedroom tax, he said something so ringingly true that it cannot be tainted by suspicions about his true feelings. He described these proposals for disability cuts as immoral.
Immoral, while technically correct, doesn’t go far enough. This is transcendently disgusting. It induces a purity of rage that borders psychosis. The idea of sons of privilege blithely nudging horrendously difficult lives closer towards the impossible could tease out the teenage revolutionary in a 92-year-old duke. No one who supported such cuts – no one who failed to oppose them – has a right to think of themselves as a Christian.
Cameron not only regards himself as a Christian. He has experienced levels of stress, anxiety, exhaustion, agony, misery and grief, as the parent of a severely disabled child who died, that most of us could imagine in only the barest outline, if at all.
He was, by all accounts, a magnificent father to his son. In general, so far as one can tell, he is not a callous person. Yet somehow, he has sat back these past years and committed a terrible sin – charitably, one of omission – by failing to prevent the disabled being implicitly slandered as scroungers. He let them be stigmatised, leading to an unconscionable surge of verbal and physical assaults. He allowed their lives, and those of their carers, to be made bleaker for the loss of respite care. But why am I falling into that lightning rod trap of using the passive tense? This buck, if no other, stops with Cameron. It is he, as Prime Minister, who has made those lives bleaker.
How someone who went through what he did with his son could fail to defend those going through it now (and without the wealth that cushions families like his from such indignities as begging local authorities for heavily rationed incontinence supplies), I have no idea. But then this is not one for the pundit. This is a case for a team of psychoanalysts working round-the-clock shifts in Vienna.
Cameron tells us he was puzzled and “disappointed” (that modern synonym for “so furious I could cut out his liver and force-feed it to him”) by Duncan Smith’s resignation. Our Viennese friends might interpret this as blatant projection. If Cameron is not puzzled by his own disregard for the disabled, if he isn’t furious with himself for colluding in their victimisation, one day he may be.
It is now less likely Osborne will succeed him, but within a few years Cameron will leave office all the same. And when he does, long after the feuding of recent days is forgotten, when the scorching heat of lightning gives way to the cooler judgment of history, he will be remembered as much as anything for how chillingly he was able to separate the personal from the political.
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