Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The One Quiet Man The Chancellor Can Outmanoeuvre

The dead horse that George Osborne is supposed to be a skilled political strategist hasn't been beaten recently. It's been a while now since I was poking my face in frustration that almost every mention of him by supposedly informed and well-connected political editors included this characterisation. I don't know if it was my repeated bleating on many websites that a single piece of evidence should be presented by journalists to support it, but the fact that he actually turned up to the Paralympics to present a medal when anyone could have foreseen what would happen probably did more.

But there is another indicator of Osborne's lack of talent and influence which also gets overlooked and not just that thing about Mandelson on the billionaire's yacht; it's his powerlessness to get rid of Iain Duncan Smith.

Political commentators in the media expressed or feigned shock when there was a reshuffle and Smith refused to be moved. That shouldn't have been the case as he has stated quite clearly that his current job would be the last he ever does in politics. He wants that welfare reform legacy to match Beveridge.

Why is the name of this intellectual liberal so misused when Smith is the precise opposite of him? It's not the goals or ideals Smith wants to inherit, just the prominence in history. Unlike many others in the Cabinet, Smith's future is not based on getting a job with one of the companies that benefit so richly from the policies of the government, chasing another portfolio to hand over more of the country to oligarchs isn't on the table for him. He does not care about austerity, just a shift in culture which is why time and time again the policies he's sponsored have often not saved money at all. The one thing we can guarantee has saved money is the change in how benefits are uprated, initially an idea by David Freud, but it was Osborne who then unilaterally decided to put a 1% cap on it every year until at least 2015 after he looked at the numbers.

He wasn't going willingly, so what about unwillingly? That wasn't going to happen either for one very strange quirk of how politics works in Britain: Iain Duncan Smith for most of the last three years has been more powerful in domestic politics than anyone else in the Cabinet, including the Chancellor and Prime Minister. That has suited his vanity very well but no one else gets such a free-ride; even David Cameron who gets kid glove treatment is still frequently pictured on holiday(as he frequently takes holidays) in unflattering photos. Forcing Smith out by a reshuffle would have led to him resigning and then pinning the blame for the incoming failures on Osborne's interference. Considering the unacknowledged fortunes that social security saves the country, the cost of those failures would derail the Coalition's stated economic goals and then secure absolute election defeat. As Smith's stated goals can only be tested against utterly intangible measures like 'cultural change' rather than explicit money saving, there's always an extremely long delay between the problems emerging and the media paying any attention to it. That would stop the moment Smith is gone.

But now Osborne has smelled blood in the water; Smith has screwed up too many times in just a few months and has started to visibly strain over the pressure in public, hence he has repeatedly delayed his scheduled appearance before the Work and Pensions Select Committee over his misuse of statistics. Unfortunately he's delayed it until this month of all months and Osborne is at his strongest around this time of year because of conference and his Autumn statement. With so many unfortunate things lining up against Smith, this it seems is Osborne's moment to get rid of him. In the coming days and weeks Smith is going to weather the most intense attacks on his conduct and character he's ever had to deal with and most of it is clearly orchestrated from within his own government. A book reveals what everyone knew but no one talks about; that Smith is considered unintelligent by others and especially Osborne. The Chancellor yesterday made announcements of policies which directly contradict Smith's own plans for reforms. Whilst that speech was going on, the Guardian reported on leaked DWP documents casting Smith in a light that was extremely against the image he has carefully cultivated for a decade now.

These are too many coincidences. Today it will be the Secretary's turn to give his speech at conference. His response will tell me just how strong he is against Osborne now.