Iain Duncan Smith saga proves opportunism is king

I first began writing this response shortly after Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) was announced on Thursday night. But by Saturday morning the lines of rebuttal had become so complex, and the smoke and mirrors so dense, I felt any meaningful comment had been lost. Even if I spoke the truth, it could easily be denied.

A few days on, with the dust partially settled, I feel it is important to say this. Despite all the U-turns announced on “benefit” cuts, disabled people remain the political football of this government - the vessel through which political opportunism resides.

Let’s start with Iain Duncan Smith. In his resignation letter, he painted himself as a man suddenly struck with a conscience against economic policies he helped create, spurred on by last week’s budget from Chancellor George Osborne, which, on the one hand imposed further cuts on the disabled, while promising reductions in capital gains tax on the other.

In his own words, he was “unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self-imposed restraints that I believe are...distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest".

This is the same man who supported cuts to Employment Support Allowance.  Under his stewardship, the DWP claimed that cutting the benefit by £30 a week – to the same rate as Jobseeker’s Allowance – would encourage the disabled to find work, bluntly casting disabled people as work shy puppeteers of their own struggle.

Duncan Smith did little to dispel this misconception as DWP minister, once brazenly describing ESA as “Labour’s essential mistake at its heart– that people are passive victims”. Wilfully ignorant to enabling power of support, he concluded “if you treat people as passive that’s what they’ll become”. 

And then there was this from Nadine Dorries on Twitter

But it doesn’t stop there. This is the same man who supported cuts to Personal Independent Payments (PIP). A move that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, would see 370,000 disabled people lose an average of £3,500 a year. 

As a senior government official told the New Statesman, they were “surprised” by Duncan Smith’s resignation because the reform to PIPs “was a policy agreed between the DWP and HMT”.

The list of contradictions goes on. Yet it is the hypocrisy now Duncan Smith is out of government that is the real problem.

Within hours Tim Montgomerie, Times journalist and on/off Conservative speech writer, was defending Duncan Smith’s corner on Newsnight, championing his “moral force” as someone who had been pushed too far by his evil party overlords.

It felt like the beginnings of swift repositioning exercise, with, one suspects, one eye firmly on rehabilitation by whoever takes over from Cameron before the next election. A suspicion lent further credence last night when leadership hopeful Boris Johnson came out in sudden support of Duncan Smith’s stance on the cuts.

However, the result matters as much as the why. David Cameron and George Osborne have been weakened, as has momentum for the “In” campaign ahead of the EU referendum - led by Cameron and opposed by Duncan Smith.

Suddenly the mantra of “urgent” and “difficult decisions” used to prop up post-recession cuts no longer needs to involve disability. They can easily be shelved, no questions asked, now that political survival is threatened.

Funny how much flexibility can be found.  

In the run up to Duncan Smith’s exit on Thursday, my family had been discussing the government’s approach to disability more than usual. Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative mayoral candidate and MP for neighbouring Richmond, had been forced to resign as patron of a disability charity after voting for the ESA cuts. As one family member put it: "this government seems to know the cost of everything and the value of nothing".

No truer word has been spoken. There’s a delicious irony in Cameron and Osborne scramble to save their political careers by reversing these cuts. In doing so they stoop to a level of political opportunism that would make even Frank Underwood blush.