Well, it looks like he may have pulled it off. After years of vilification, contempt and manoeuvrings against him, Iain Duncan Smith is finally rolling out universal credit, a major and far-sighted reform to the benefits system based on two simple principles: that the benefits system should be simple to understand and that it should always pay to be in work.
If the system is a success, IDS will deserve to be remembered as one of the great Christian social reformers. A committed Roman Catholic who, in political terms, underwent his own Damascene conversion when he witnessed first hand the squalor and deprivation in parts of Glasgow, he set up the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and dedicated his life to welfare reform.
The model that the CSJ duly came up with to reform the benefits system seemed eminently rational and, despite a great deal of nonsense spouted by the technically illiterate commentariat, perfectly feasible, though difficult, to implement.
Here, therefore, was a desperate moral issue needing attention, but one clearly analysed and with a solution at hand. You would think that any decent government would give it it’s backing. True, David Cameron did subsequently appoint and stick with Duncan Smith at welfare, but along the way he has had to endure endless sniping and undermining from the scheming George Osborne, who views everything politically and nothing at all morally.
Here, in microcosm, we see the eternal tensions between genuine conservatism and toryism within the Conservative Party: reformers constantly come up against the party’s innate Tory cynicism and cowardice: its instinct that nothing – nothing at all – must ever threaten its entitlement to rule. We saw, of course, the same battle played out with Michael Gove at education – a battle that Gove ultimately lost.
If the saga of welfare reform sheds an unflattering light on the Conservative Party, it casts an even worse one on Labour. After all, Tony Blair once charged Frank Field to ‘think the unthinkable’ on welfare. Field, in many ways a mirror image of Duncan Smith, is an old style Labour MP from it’s sadly faded Christian socialist tradition, from the days when, in Harold Wilson’s famous phrase, Labour owed “more to Methodism than it did to Marx”.
A party with such strong puritan roots would once upon a time have enthusiastically embraced Duncan Smith’s reforms. However, for a considerable time now, Labour has owed more, much more, to Marx than it does to Methodism, and Field found himself undermined by Gordon Brown and forced to resign before he had barely started in his post.
Brown duly came up with a hideously complex system that trapped more than five million people on unemployment benefits for the duration of New Labour’s tenure in power. Very ominously, Labour now say they will “pause” Universal Credit – a strange decision, given the system is now just rolled out and needs time to prove itself one way or the other. The strong suspicion must be that what Labour fears most of all is that the system may work, and therefore ultimately deprive it of the votes of those dependent on the state. That is because the modern Labour party is not the party of the worker but of the middle class public sector manager, who needs a permanently dependent class in order to justify their jobs and pensions.
Faced with such a dispiriting binary choice, is it therefore any wonder at all that the weary and disillusioned British electorate are increasingly looking elsewhere?