A shocking resignation: the impact of Iain Duncan Smith's departure

By Virginia Moffatt
March 19, 2016

A ministerial resignation is always dramatic. But when it happens late on a Friday evening, in the aftermath of a controversial budget,  and that minister is Iain Duncan Smith, then it becomes very significant indeed. As one of the main architects of austerity,  his departure has already sent huge waves through Whitehall. No wonder Laura Kuensberg, the BBC's political editor said last night (18 March 2016) – this 'undermines everything'.

According to his resignation letter, Mr Duncan Smith resigned because supporting further cuts to Personal Independent Payments (PIP) to fund tax breaks for the rich was no longer defensible. He also noted that he had been frequently 'pressured' for cuts to working age pensions in the run up to budgets. The Prime Minister's reply expressed surprise, as the original decision had been reached 'collectively' and that afternoon they had agreed to put it on hold in the light of concerns raised within the party.

There are many who have expressed disbelief that Mr Duncan Smith might resign over a matter of conscience. After all, he robustly defended the PIP cuts this week, recently dismissed disability campaigners as people who are "never going to vote for us" and allegedly begged the MP, Nadine Dorries, to support the £30 a week cut to Employment Support Allowance.  However, it is possible there is a kernel of truth in his statement. The former minister has always declared his aim is to work for social justice, and there were rumours two years ago that he was arguing with the Treasury about George Osborne's proposals for £12 billion in welfare cuts.  Perhaps he went along with those cuts because he managed to persuade the Chancellor to propose a 'living wage' in last year's summer budget. Maybe he felt that gain was worth the pain inflicted elsewhere. Perhaps he also felt he had made similar concessions over PIP and it simply was too galling to be told on one day to defend the cuts strongly, and the next that there was to be a retrenchment.

However, there are other factors at play. Yesterday happened to be the day that the Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Work and Pensions must publish papers that warn of the failures of universal credit. With a small backbench rebellion over the ESA cut, potential rebellions over PIP (deferred for now but surely not for good), charities challenging Conservative MPs on their stance on cuts, and the media finally asking questions about welfare reform, his position was becoming far less certain then it has been since 2010. Did he resign before he was pushed?

And, of course, there is also Brexit and the likely leadership election when David Cameron resigns. Duncan Smith's departure removes one of the people seen as responsible for the damaging PIP cuts, leaving George Osborne, the other, to take all the blame. Has that fatally undermined the Chancellor's chances for the leadership? And will it aid his likely rival, Boris Johnson, who is also in the Brexit camp?

People are complicated so it is quite likely that Mr Duncan Smith's resignation was due to a combination all of these factors. But, whatever, the reason, the man who has personified welfare cuts is gone. And whilst we are unlikely to see an immediate change in policy from a government committed to reducing public expenditure, his departure in Budget week has undoubtedly raised questions about necessity of austerity. Because if this welfare cut wasn't about the deficit, then maybe the others weren't either. And if the economy isn't growing, the deficit hasn't been eliminated, public and private debt are rising, and people are all worse off, then maybe a different approach is required. 

Since 2010, the mainstream media has happily accepted that austerity is necessary without question. But the furore over the recent ESA cuts, the Budget 'U-turns' and a former minister questioning whether "We are all in it together",  has forced even the most compliant journalist to ask whether cutting services isn't as much about ideology as it is about austerity. I have no illusions that Mr Duncan Smith's replacement, Stephen Crabb,will change course on welfare and yet I can't help feeling that we've reached a turning point. This week, as the voices of sick and disabled people finally broke through into the mainstream, the man most people hold responsible for their woes resigned. And whilst, the next minister will probably be defending the indefensible for some time to come, the false assumptions behind welfare reform have been exposed. Of course it will take a long time to reverse the damage done,  but yesterday a line has been drawn in the sand – this far and no further. And nothing will ever be the same again.

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© Virginia Moffatt is Chief Operating Officer of Ekklesia

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