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Saturday, March 19, 2016 

Never underestimate the cowardice of a quiet man.

Let's give Iain Duncan Smith the benefit of the doubtPerhaps he really did regard the demands of the Treasury to cut PIP to be a compromise too far.  Perhaps he really was angered by how a policy he signed up to only reluctantly was "junked" within a couple of days after a number of influential backbenchers spoke against it.  Perhaps he had been wrestling with his conscience over how the "fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political" would affect the disabled.  And it is true that he and George Osborne have long disliked each other, the DWP and Treasury clashing repeatedly over Osborne demanding cuts to welfare, universal credit especially.

Yeah, we could do that.  Or we could drop the idea this has practically anything to do with PIP and instead focus on how this has everything to do with the EU referendum and internal Tory party politics, couldn't we?  God, how instantly a ministerial resignation, no matter how absurd excites the political class.  How even the most milquetoast of criticisms of what everyone knows is about politics and nothing whatsoever to do with economics is toasted as somehow being a rapier like stab into the heart of the government.

Here's IDS's heavily caveated, unutterably weak, and yet still "blistering" attack on the government's continued raison d'etre in full:


I am unable to watch passively while certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.

Even at his most potentially damaging moment, Quiet Man is a coward. Certain policies?  That I believe are more and more perceived?  Distinctly?  Tell us what you think Iain!  Don't hold back!

Of course, IDS flouncing out with a slap at Osborne is damaging to the government, without doubt.  Despite IDS's refusal to call a spade a spade, his criticism of Osborne acting out of political rather than economic motives gives opponents a line and will further make ministers squirm when questioned.  More than anything though, this is a pre-emptive strike from the Tory right at Osborne for believing he can waltz into the top job.  If IDS had really wanted to damage Cameron, rather than just the chancellor, he could have walked out either before the budget or in the immediate aftermath, not once the government had already made clear it was going to think again.  The backtracking is what gave him the opportunity to resign, rather than the policy itself being the last straw.

Wrong as it is to view the potential Osborne rise to the Tory leadership as analogous to Brown's taking over from Blair, the comparison is still valid to an extent.  Except for Osborne's followers, the chancellor is not universally liked, let alone loved: sure, they'll cheer him when he does something they do applaud, as IDS did when Osborne announced the "living wage"; when he pulls out a dud, as happened this week, those same faces are suddenly nowhere to be found.  No one is really looking forward to Cameron going, for the reason that all of the candidates are divisive in one way or the other.  Osborne is too socially liberal, not to forget punchable; Boris is Boris; May is colder than liquid nitrogen, etc.

Then we have the EU vote, and how it's apparent there will be a reckoning against those in the cabinet who've decided to support leave.  It's handy for Cameron that the majority of them are either dunces or just plain useless at their jobs: Chris Grayling is a complete liability, Michael Gove is a traitor harbouring leadership ambitions, Priti Patel is a joke, John Whittingdale is little more than a Thatcherite totem, and then we have IDS.  As the Graun's acerbic and accurate leader has it, IDS has managed to be both hopeless and destructive as work and pensions secretary.  More than anything, the only reason he wasn't moved is thanks to how IDS has been a good shield for everything that's both gone "right" and wrong in his department, allowing Cameron to somewhat be above the fray of workfare, food banks, the bedroom tax and all the rest.  He was unsackable because of how crap he was.

Resigning now allows IDS to portray himself as still having a heart, gives him the opportunity to dedicate himself to the leave campaign, and means he avoids getting the inevitable sack that was coming either after the referendum or Osborne becoming leader.  The damage is also far slighter to the government than it initially looks.  Yes, it looks bad that a senior cabinet minister has accused the chancellor of balancing the books on the backs of the disabled for political reasons, but the majority paying attention will conclude this wasn't primarily about that for the reason that it wasn't.  Cameron has also struck the right tone in his response: IDS's resignation is "puzzling", and raises more questions than it answers.

What it does highlight is the only real thing holding the Tories together, so fractured has the party become by Europe and between its left and right, is power.  We saw this irregularly during the coalition years: the EU vote itself is a product of it.  The first sign of trouble and the backbenchers become restless.  Getting the majority and seeing Labour in such dire straits brought a wave of euphoria that is only now descending into a comedown, thanks to the referendum and the spectre of Cameron's departure.  If, and this a huge if, Labour can at least keep its own infighting to a minimum, then the cracks in the Tories are again becoming visible.  It won't take much for them to turn into chasms.

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