20 March 2016

IDS resignation ends Tory post-election honeymoon


“Blimey, even IDS has found a line he won’t cross” remarked one of my friends as the news broke Friday night.

That statement was based on the neritic reading of UK politics that is spread so easily through meme on Twitter and Facebook, images that are almost always restricted to no more than a scintilla of truth. Contrary to the realisations of many prior to his shock resignation, Iain Duncan Smith has fought a long and hard battle against the type of welfare cuts that appeared in George Osborne’s eighth (and possibly most pointless) Budget. Indeed, rumours of resignation appeared as early as 2010, when the Treasury were shocked to discover that IDS’ ‘welfare revolution’ might require an increase in the DWP’s spend. In the perplexing factional identity politics of the Tories, IDS can appear more akin to a big government religious conservative in the mould of George W. Bush, someone bound to cause intermittent friction with the socially and economically liberal austerity-Chancellor.

One of the most notable instances of what appears to have been a standing threat from IDS to resign was when his flagship Universal Credit programme came under pressure last year. Prior to that, the former leader was rumoured to be prepared to walk out if he was diverted from his mission by being reshuffled along with Michael Gove in a bid to improve the party’s electoral chances. David Cameron has valued his presence too much to risk his departure. IDS has not been afraid to put himself on the line to defend those his team identify as the “needy poor” from onerous welfare cuts.

This is not to say IDS has resisted the majority of cuts. Beyond austerity and fiscal consolidation, he joins nearly all Conservatives in passionately believing that the high-spending welfare policies of New Labour were damaging to the country’s working psyche as well as its bank balance. Few could really argue; he leaves the DWP with more Britons in employment than ever and JSA claims at record lows.

Though as many of Westminster’s astute commentators were quick to ask: why did IDS wait to resign over a welfare cut that was cancelled, when he has previously backed-down over cuts that went ahead? Of course the answer – the only answer to any question in Westminster politics at the moment – is the forthcoming EU referendum.

As a member of the cabinet whose villainous reputation among the British public was rivalled only by the government’s other great reformer, Michael Gove, the IDS share price is finally rising. A rehabilitated darling of the modern Conservative grassroots he might be, but few others would have known much more of him than the man from the .GIF who cheers at benefit cuts (never mind it was actually at the announcement of the National Living Wage.)

Free from the restraints of Cabinet, the quiet man-of-the-moment will be a far more formidable voice in the Brexit debate. As a Brexiteer, I couldn’t be happier about this. As a Conservative who still retains a soft spot for Dave and George for delivering the 7th May 2015, I’m worried.

Perhaps the buffoonish shower that has captured the Labour party has allowed a modicum of arrogance to seep in to the Tory leadership. The polls, which showed the Conservatives with a healthy lead long after re-election, have slipped in the last week to level-pegging, and Friday’s YouGov poll even has Team Corbyn ahead. While it is still unlikely that this ragtag band of Islington Chavistas can win a general election, a nervous Conservative party has been known to self-inflict some nasty wounds.

More unedifying has been the rampant pro-EU campaigning of the Tory leadership – from the Prime Minister’s frequent Facebook status to the Chancellor’s ill-advised Budget-day spin on the OBR’s Brexit agnosticism – that is so out of step with the majority of the party’s grassroots. The time when the Prime Minister was prepared to lead the out campaign if he didn’t get a good deal is hard to recall when listening to the current prognostications of doom should we depart Brussels’ political union.

It’s still fair to say that Europe is a less divisive issue amongst Conservatives than it was in the 1990s. Tory Europhilia is all but dead; the majority of those campaigning for Remain are keen to stress that they retain their Euroscepticism. But the ripples in the pool that began with Gove’s declaration, and grew with Boris’ cannonball entry, are threatening to flood the Conservative garden.

The great hope for Conservatives is that the Tories are a more grown-up and professional party than they were twenty years ago and that like two teams of rugby players, they will be able to come to blows in the maul before buying each other a beer in the bar afterwards. With the looming Tory leadership battle to come, there is a risk it turns out more like the childish recent England/Wales post-game spat, with the outcome being used as pretence to snipe at the victory chances of the various frontrunners.

Internal discipline is not the only challenge – UKIP has been rather quiet since the disastrous Galloway-infused launch of Grassroots Out! But if, as seems marginally more likely, Britain votes to remain a member of the European Union, a great opportunity lays before them. Eurosceptic voters, who will surely number over 40% of the active electorate, may end up feeling betrayed by a Government that joined with almost all of Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the SNP to campaign against them. It’s that latter party – that used the ‘No’ vote in the Scottish referendum so adeptly – UKIP will seek to ape.

This is not a good time for disunity for the Tories. From the challenge of preventing Sadiq Khan seizing control of London in the London Mayoral election; to helping the terrific Ruth Davidson lead the Scottish Tories to snatching second place from Labour; to the chance to hammer Corbyn in the English counties; there are a number of big prizes on the table before the referendum. From a Tory activist point of view, the decision of a June EU poll date surely presents a grossly unwanted distraction.

It lasted longer than usual in British politics, but this Conservative government’s honeymoon since its election last May is finally over. The hard work of repairing their marriage with the British electorate cannot be long neglected.

Lewis James Brown is Digital Communication Manager at the Centre for Policy Studies