Halfway through his interview with ConHome, Iain Duncan Smith told a very funny story about a joke with Angela Merkel and the rest of the leaders of Europe which went wrong.
IDS: “I attended a big conference on employment the other day. I was standing in for the Prime Minister, he’d asked me if I could stand in. It’s very hierarchical, the European Union. I’m sitting on the inner circle of this table with all the other prime ministers and important people, and I’m sitting there, and you know Frau Merkel is at the top of the table, dispensing justice, and the thing is, everyone gets the chance to speak after she speaks about how good their systems are.
“So I get my hand up and eventually I’m due to come in, seven or eight in, so an hour and a half or thereabouts goes by, and you’re listening to translations and so on, and it’s quite wearing, and she finally says, “Herr Ion, would you like to speak”, so I put my earphones down and I thought I would be funny as you do, in a self-deprecating way, and I said: ‘Chancellor, thank you very much indeed for inviting me to speak. I will be brief because I have sat here like the rest of us for an hour and a half, and I have really lost the will to live.’
“And I looked around and there was complete stony silence, and she looked rather concerned towards me, as did her number two, my opposite number, and they looked rather puzzled at me, which wasn’t what I expected, I thought at least there’d be a titter. So I ploughed on and I finished, and I discovered later on from somebody else in the hall who said, ‘It doesn’t work, that kind of stuff, because it was translated as “We’ve sat here for an hour and a half and I am terminally ill.”
“And so they were worried, why was he here, it’s brutal of the Prime Minister to send a terminally ill man, what a brave man. The only man laughing in the corner was the Irish Taoiseach. He thought it was hilariously funny, put his arm around me, guided me out of the hall and started introducing me to everyone.”
The story is characteristic. It displays the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions as a man who with good-natured sincerity defies the consensus, and is quite often misunderstood when he does so.
These are qualities which fit IDS for his present role, in which he is defying the consensus that there is nothing much to be done about the welfare state. He believes that instead of paying people to do nothing, we should pay them to do something. I have never met a politician who speaks with such fervour about the value of work.
IDS recalled an argument he had with someone about whether stacking shelves in a supermarket is a fit occupation for a university graduate: “And I said, so you say someone stacking shelves has no value in society? You look down your nose at them, do you? And I posed them the simple question: ‘OK, the day you go to the supermarket and there’s no food on the shelves because there’s no one to stack them, who do you think’s more important to your life, the shelf stacker or the Egyptologist?’ The truth is everybody has and should have respect for every job that they do, and when you sneer at somebody who stacks shelves, you sneer at the whole cycle of work, and that’s not good. I’ve always said you work, first and foremost work, and you pay your way as far as you can by working, and if that means going out and doing demeaning work at times you just do it. I actually when I left the Army trained as a heavy goods vehicle driver.”
At the Department of Work and Pensions, IDS is driving through a programme of reform of breathtaking ambition. The aim is to make it impossible for anyone of working age who is able to work to refuse to do so, if they wish to go on receiving state benefits. As he put it when ConHome questioned whether work is available: “I think people have just got to be prepared to look. You may have to go a little bit further to find the work, but the work is there, particularly in London there’s a lot of work available. Every day job centres in the United Kingdom have about half a million vacancies at the moment which rotate, have to be filled, with new ones coming on. For the most part we’ve got record numbers of people in work now, the number of people in work is higher than in America, we outscore them by about five or six points, and we’re better than most other countries, Germany and Holland are close to us.”
He pointed out how much worse unemployment is in countries such as Spain than it is here, and said with deep emotion: “Unemployment is a terrible scourge, I’ve been unemployed twice in my life, and on both occasions it’s tough going out and looking for a job, trying to take almost anything you can find, so I know what it’s like and I have nothing but the highest regard for those who have to seek work. But I do say keep working at it, because there are jobs to be had, and our job at the job centres is to get them to those jobs, and insist at the same time that when they do get a job they take it, even if it’s not what they’re looking for, because at the end of it all you must work, and while you’re at work you can look for other jobs, but you can’t just say ‘I’ll wait’, and that’s where our new sanctions come in.”
ConHome: “Youth unemployment is still quite high.”
IDS: “Youth unemployment is higher than we would want, there’s no question about that, but some of those figures are also slightly distorted because they include students, probably about a quarter, this comes from kids leaving school at 16, we don’t see them until they’re 18.
“The best thing we’ve had is work experience, fantastic, the work experience programme, you’re given up to two months in a company with basic pay and no benefit, and that is what the kids want if they couldn’t get any work experience on their c.v. What I didn’t expect was that over 50 per cent of those going on the course would then disappear off the benefit system, and it’s a voluntary course remember, and the reason is that a large chunk of them are then employed by the company that got to know them and liked them, and the others who came off it were almost immediately snapped up because they had work experience on their sheet. And Labour opposes it, you’ve got all the anarchists out saying this is workfare and they have to work like slave labour.”
The reforms which IDS is pushing through, many of which are designed to make it more worthwhile to work, have put Labour in a quandary. For as IDS points out, his reforms command general acceptance:
“On welfare reform it’s quite clear that the vast majority of the public back what we’re doing. Where Labour get their biggest negatives is when they’re associated with welfare, i.e. they want more of it, and that’s a negative for them. That’s why they’ve banned ‘welfare’ as a word. They don’t use it now, they won’t use it.
“We did a poll on the benefit cap and 80 per cent of trade union members supported the cap, staggering when you think that the biggest opponents of it are the trade union leaders.
“My narrative is every pound for life change. We want people to change what they’re doing, so they can be free from entrapment and dependency.”
One of the main lines of attack against the reforms is that they will not work, because the computers which will be used to administer universal credit will not work.
IDS admitted that there have been delays, but denied that the computers were essential: “People get hung up about the IT side of it, but the honest truth is IT only automates these things, the truth is you can deliver this in manpower, IT is there to make it more efficiently delivered, quicker and cheaper, but at the end of the day it’s not really about IT, it’s about life change…universal credit will improve the income of the first person into work, which means that if there’s a second person the economic choice is much more of a choice now than an imperative.”
ConHome: “Are you disappointed that it’s taken so long to get a married tax allowance?”
IDS: “No, it was a manifesto commitment, the Prime Minister has always assured me, as has George, that at some point they will deliver on the manifesto commitment. Actually we’ve delivered on most of our manifesto commitments one way or the other. If he [Cameron] gives his word on something I like to think he’ll follow through and I believe he’ll follow through on this.”
ConHome: “You’re rather an unusual figure, because you’re an ex-leader of the Conservative Party serving in the Cabinet [IDS led the Tories from 2001-03].”
IDS: “William Hague and myself, I suppose. It’s a duopoly of no ambition.”
ConHome: “What does it feel like?”
IDS: “What, to be unambitious?”
ConHome: “Not exactly, no. To be an ex-leader.”
IDS: “Well I hope I can help, talk to the Prime Minister, he’ll speak to me as to William and others if there are big decisions to be made, share hopefully a bit of experience with him. You know I’ve always said from the word go I would back him even in times if he does stuff which is marginal, I will still back him in that role, and so does William, not to repeat the mistakes of the past for us, when we had ex-leaders and others who were less than helpful. I said to the Prime Minister, I will always support you…I could tell anybody it’s a hellish job being Leader of the Opposition, but it’s a doubly hellish job if your own party literally wants to pick a fight in an empty room. I said in a speech the other day I wasn’t worried about the fight, I was just worried that the empty room won every time and that was the problem, so it was a nightmare really, and I did not want the current Prime Minister to take over in opposition and find people like me pontificating and stirring up trouble, so I’ve done my level best throughout to try to calm people down. You do get colleagues who feel strongly about stuff and have to rebel, I don’t blame them, because I was a rebel myself [at the time of Maastricht], but I just simply say, ‘Don’t get personal’, that’s my greatest rule, if you’re going to rebel, keep it on the facts and not the personalities.”
IDS is scathing about Ed Miliband’s performance in Brighton: “He’s had to throw red meat to his backbenchers and to the unions and that has meant he’s done some very left-wing things.”
In IDS’s view, Miliband’s promise to repeal the so-called “bedroom tax” – as Labour calls the Government’s withdrawal of the spare-room subsidy – would lead to a number of other unfairnesses.
Labour’s plan would also remove an incentive to find work: “This is one of the ways of encouraging people to go to work, a very small number of hours, I think it’s about three hours a week extra of work to get the cost for one extra room. It basically runs counter to the whole idea of getting people to work. What he’s trying to do is get councils and others to disobey the law, that’s what he’s actually encouraging them to do, not to implement a policy. Is he going to tell them implement the policy, or is he going to tell them don’t implement the policy?”
IDS dismissed Miliband’s conference speech: “It was opportunistic, it was generally to the Left and it reminded me an awful lot of Michael Foot really. I thought it was a kind of Michael Footesque type speech.”
Who else would use the expression “Michael Footesque” to refer to the man who led the Labour Party to defeat at the general election of 1983?
But IDS has the confidence to do things his own way. His nondescript office at the Department of Work and Pensions is decorated with pictures of Marlborough winning the Battle of Blenheim, and of Nelson, Wellington and various other commanders in the Napoleonic Wars, including some from whom IDS and his wife are descended. For the first few minutes of the interview he talked with enormous animation about these figures, while every so often warning me that he might have misremembered some of the details of their exploits.
Before visiting IDS, I scanned some of the press coverage of his reforms. No one has yet managed to demonstrate that these have inflicted terrible suffering on a multitude of undeserving people. Vast changes have been put in train without prompting riots.
IDS is cutting the administrative cost of his department almost in half: “The cost of running this department was about ten billion a year and by the end of this Parliament we’ll have got it down to about five and a half billion. That’s pretty astonishing, I think. I’ve never got anybody to take any interest in it…. They didn’t stint themselves either, you know, Labour…When I walked through the door there were five ministers, five cars. We’ve cut it down to four ministers and I’ve got rid of all of the cars, except for the one that was supposed to be taking me, and we made that a pool car. We even departed from the government car service and we’ve saved money there as well.”
There is a strength of belief in IDS which I have seldom come across in a Cabinet minister: “We’ll get credit for sticking to these welfare reforms, not buckling…I genuinely, genuinely, genuinely am doing this job because I really do care that we have a divided society and a society where the argument was, you judge yourself on the amount of money you spend [on welfare], not on what life change you achieve. And I believe we will be improving and changing lives, giving people greater responsibility, you cannot have a modern society, a modern economy, which needs flexibility and needs application, if a chunk, a growing chunk of society are written out, so our job is to write them back in and get them to take control of their lives, and I genuinely believe we can do it and the reforms we’re doing, all of them, are aimed at giving people real hope, but a lot of aspiration again, and that’s very much where we are, so that’s the reason I took the job. It wasn’t because I care one way or the other about the title Secretary of State. I couldn’t care less about that or the red boxes or all the other stupid things. The reality is that it’s about serious and genuine change. I believe in social justice and all the other things that Tories are not supposed to believe in.”
The language may be inelegant, but the sincerity is undeniable. If his programme succeeds, IDS will deserve to be regarded as a second Beveridge: a founder or re-founder of the welfare state.