Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation, unsurprisingly, has been dominating the headlines recently. It has been suggested that his departure harms the Conservative “de-toxification” project, that the PM and Chancellor are badly damaged by the loss of such a senior minister. This is nonsense. All that has been demonstrated – if it needed to be proven at all – is that IDS is and always has been a dreadful team player.
I first became aware of him during the Maastricht debates. He was one of the most persistent rebels against John Major’s government. Now I was no fan of the Maastricht treaty, and it seemed to me that IDS’s objections were principled. Nonetheless, given the tiny majority enjoyed by Major after the 1992 election, the repeated rebellions, abetted by an opportunistic Labour opposition, weakened the then PM, added to the general perception of decay and loss of grip and no doubt added to the size of the Labour landslide in 1997.
Those rebellions came to haunt IDS when the party leadership fell into his lap after the 2001 election. He was a very poor leader, worse even than William Hague who had at least given the party loyalists something to cheer at PMQs every week, even if his successes against Tony Blair failed to translate into votes. It has been pointed out that IDS started the move to a more compassionate Conservatism, but he never gave the impression of being able to deliver it by winning an election. As his leadership collapsed about him his shrill demands for backing did not sit well with his history of disloyalty to John Major.
In 2002 I was the chairman of Hammersmith & Fulham Conservatives. We were running a strong campaign to wrest control of Hammersmith & Fulham Council from Labour. We had a fine team of candidates in the form of, amongst others, Greg Hands, Stephen Greenhalgh, Huw Merriman and Nick Boys Smith, who have all gone on to greater things. IDS and his wife were local residents. A huge amount of work was put in by candidates, officers and volunteers alike. Had we succeeded, it would have been a bright light in an otherwise disappointing night for the party. We did not expect IDS to come and campaign with us. But we were surprised to find out, when we saw the marked register after the election, that the party leader did not appear to have voted at all. Perhaps he had chosen instead to vote in his Parliamentary constituency. Biting our lips, we agreed to say nothing publicly at the time in order to preserve party unity.
To be fair to Duncan Smith, after he was defenestrated in 2003 he embarked on a long and extremely fruitful period of research into issues of social justice, and how the Conservative party could address those issues, which are not typically seen as Conservative priorities. His Social Justice foundation produced some very well thought out documents which paved the way for the reforms undertaken by the Coalition government. I was therefore pleased when he was appointed to the Cabinet to see these reforms implemented. Here, I thought, was a real expert who should be given the chance to practice what he preached.
Sadly, the implementation of that reform has been painfully slow. As cabinet member for Housing at Elmbridge, the single largest element of my portfolio in terms of man-hours spent on it by Council officers is the administration of Housing Benefit claims. Welfare rights rules are hugely complex and require careful analysis to ensure that the right people get only that to which they are genuinely entitled. However there is a competing need for benefit claims to be processed swiftly to prevent individual hardship. I am very lucky to have a dedicated team of officers who manage to achieve these contrasting objectives year on year. But ever since Universal Credit appeared on the horizon, they have carried on working knowing that their jobs would not be safe after HB is incorporated into Universal Credit and the administrative function is transferred into the DWP. This has been going on for nearly 6 years and the planned date for full implementation has been postponed again and again. Ultimately, the man at the top is responsible for the actions of his department.