Christina Patterson: It's time to stand up to the Treasury

Iain Duncan Smith didn't call Mr Osborne a toffee-nosed, sneering little upstart but he did, apparently, tell him he 'wasn't going to tolerate' the way he treated his department

Sunday 23 October 2011 05:37

So, finally, thank God, a stand-up row. In the vicar's tea party now running our country (not to be confused with the one out to oust America's first ever Muslim President) it has all been so unbelievably civilised, so "no, no after you" and so "you are absolutely right, and I was absolutely wrong", so discombobulating, in fact, that it has made many of us feel like Wayne and Waynetta Slob, rather letting the side down. But now the man who once, in a brave attempt to turn an evident political handicap into an asset, described himself as a "quiet man" who was "turning up the volume", has indeed turned up the volume.

In what government aides would no doubt call "an animated discussion" at the Treasury, Iain Duncan Smith did not call the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who used to help him prepare for Prime Minister's Questions (but clearly not very well), a toffee-nosed, dough-faced sneering little upstart who could shove the silver spoon with which he was born up his uptight little arse. One doesn't, after all, want to get one's stiff upper lip in a twist. But he did, according to one source, tell the Chancellor that he was "not prepared to tolerate" the "appalling" way he treated his department, and that he should "show more respect". His staff, he said, did not "deserve to be treated in such an arrogant and rude way".

Arrogant? Rude? George Osborne? No, no, this was the man who told the nation, one sunny day in June, that we were basically (but not in a boarding school way) buggered, and who did it with such dash and panache that we were enchanted. It was also, of course, the youngest chancellor for more than a century, and you probably don't get your hands on the purse strings of 60 million people at the age of 38 by being Mother Theresa. It's a man who has staked his entire career and his place in history (because some 38-year-olds really do think about their place in history) on cutting the you-know-what, and a man's word is his bond, and you've got to keep the bond markets happy, and it's all very well to have a wallpaper fortune, and a baronetcy, on the back-burner, but you want to show daddy that you can, even with rather a squeaky voice, be your own man.

The problem, it seems, is that stalwart of the agony aunt – the mixed message. From Osborne, the message is clear. You can do what you like with the poor – dress them in orange jumpsuits, for all I care – but you'd better make those savings, or you're toast. The message from Cameron is a little more complicated. Well, gosh, now that I'm Prime Minister, I do think it would be nice if I looked like a, you know, reforming prime minister. When I saw the pictures of me with my sleeves rolled up during that nightmare election campaign, I thought I looked really purposeful. At first, I wasn't quite sure what to be purposeful about, but Steve and Andy have come up with loads of ideas, so we're chucking a few new ones out every day and seeing what sticks. We've got to do the cuts, of course. George is terribly keen on the cuts. But I do think we should also be able to have some fun.

If Cameron was surprised to discover that nearly five million people in this country live on benefits (Good Lord! Are you sure? On 65 quid a week?) he clearly concluded that it just wasn't on. It was OK not to work if, say, you were married to a stockbroker, and then you could do flower-arranging in the village hall, or perhaps become a JP, but for all these people (many of them not married to anyone!) to be sitting around eating trans-fats in front of their flat-screen tellies was just dreadful. It was horribly expensive, and it was a terrible waste. People should take responsibility for their own lives. They shouldn't expect the taxpayer to bail them out. Clearly, what one has to do is prise their colossal backsides off their giant leatherette sofas and make them work. What do you mean, they won't be able to afford their rent? And they don't have any skills? And half a million people who do have some skills are about to lose their jobs? Oh, for God's sake. You know I don't like detail. Please, just sort it out!

And so, perhaps because David Cameron asked him politely, and perhaps because he actually does care a great deal about the plight of the poorest people in this country, having, unlike the vast majority of politicians, spent some serious amounts of time on some of the worse sink estates (but not, obviously, living on one), and perhaps because he's no longer interested in political popularity, or office, but just wants to get things done, Iain Duncan Smith was brought in to solve the Sudoku puzzle of welfare. Like Frank Field, who was asked by Tony Blair to "think the unthinkable" and then sacked when he did, and who has, to Cameron's credit, been brought in to help him, he's had quite a lot of radical thoughts – and, surprise, surprise, they cost an arm and a leg.

It isn't possible to streamline the extremely complicated systems of benefits and tax credits without spending a fair whack. You can't just tap a little code into a computer and shout "hey presto!" And it isn't possible to tell people that "work pays" and then make it not pay by ensuring that, on their new, low wage they can't afford the rent that was previously paid by the state. You could, I suppose, chuck out everyone whose rent is paid by the state (and the Government appears to have made some moves in this direction) but those people are going to have to live somewhere, and if they can't live in mansions in Chelsea, or even on sink estates, they'll have to be shipped out to special sub-sink estates, like some of the Parisian banlieues, or the projects in The Wire. But someone still has to pay the rent anyway.

Or you could, as IDS (as he's semi-affectionately known, but not, presumably, by Osborne) has suggested, really make it pay by offering financial incentives to get people back to work.

This means, as IDS explained to Osborne before getting metaphorically slapped around the face, that, in the first instance, you're spending money rather than saving it. I suspect that even the lazy lardarses scoffing jam doughnuts over Jeremy Kyle (and who, by the way, could probably teach Osborne a thing or two about sticking to a budget) could have told him that if you want to change a system that's unfair, and extremely expensive, and which previous governments have, because it was too tricky, recoiled from addressing, you'll need a lot of cash up front. You will reap rewards, but not for quite some time.

So, Dave, you need to make your mind up. And not just about a name (though have you thought of Mevagissey?). Do you want cuts or do you want reform? If you really want, in the words of the Department of Work and Pensions' paper on "21st-century welfare", "to support people to move into and progress in work, while still supporting those in greatest need", you're going to need to spend truckloads of taxpayers' cash. People with no qualifications, or training, or experience, or employment history, or social skills, are going to need not "support" but miracles. Miracles don't come cheap, even when there are jobs. Which, in a few months, there won't be.

Welfare dependency was the great failure of the Labour Government. It was a disaster not just because it was a burden on the taxpayer (but less of a burden than the banks) but because it fosters misery, ill health, poor parenting and depression. It's a production line for the prisoners of the future (which cost the taxpayer more per year than Eton) and creates whole generations who are prisoners of their circumstances and prisoners of their past.

Stick to your guns, IDS. And tell George Osborne where to stick his silver spoon.

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