By Paul Goodman
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Iain Duncan Smith might never have become Work and Pensions Secretary. An alternative history could easily read as follows. David Willetts was made Work and Pensions Secretary in 2010. After Theresa May had been sent to the Home Office, Mr Willetts (who's in the news today over University admissions) was the most suitable member of David Cameron's former front-bench Opposition team to occupy the post she had shadowed. Like May, Willetts had himself held the brief. Unlike her, he was a social affairs expert, and thus formidably well qualified for it.
Above all, he was a loyal servant of the leadership, and quietly got on with the task with which he was entrusted – namely, to cut back the growth in social security spending without frightening the horses. His model for action was Peter Lilley, the last Conservative Social Security Secretary, whose model for finding savings was gradual change rather than radical reform: in particular, Lilley had aimed to tighten eligibility for benefits. In other words, Willetts steered clear of big schemes and bad rows with the Treasury.
All of which (returning to the real world) provokes a question: why didn't something like this happen? Why has David Cameron got himself in the position, as 2015 opens, of having a flagship welfare scheme which a) the Treasury dislikes, and in some cases is briefing against, and b) which is being overseen by one of the few Cabinet Ministers who is not remotely frightened of George Osborne – or, indeed, of David Cameron, since he has nothing whatsoever to lose. I refer of course to the Universal Credit and Iain Duncan Smith.
For let's face it, Duncan Smith hasn't half of even one of Willett's brains. This doesn't reflect badly on him, since very few people do, and brains aren't everything in politics. But he comes with other disadvantages, from the point of view of orderly government. Like William Hague, he has been party leader and is therefore, almost by definition, beyond ambition. And he has a passion – a very dangerous thing from the Treasury or Downing Street or Jeremy Heywood view of the world. Worse still, it is a passion which depends on computers working properly.
The Universal Credit, which wasn't specified in the Conservative manifesto, is Duncan Smith's compulsion. Essentially, it aims to roll up six tax credits or benefits (or parts of them) into one single payment which will improve incentives to work. A pathfinder begins in the spring and the project goes live in the autumn. The Work and Pensions Secretary has concentrated his efforts on making it work, and this has been part of the plan for the start. Chris Grayling, on appointment as Employment Minister, was told by Cameron that he would effectively co-run the department.
This devolution of responsibility has helped made the department a pleasant place to work. Grayling was given full rein to run the Work Programme – which is not without its problems – and was eventually promoted to the Cabinet. I hear bracing tales of how pleasant Duncan Smith is to work for, how his "door is always open", and how, unlike some other Secretaries of State, he doesn't try to grab all the good news for himself and palm all the bad news off on others. True, he can go on a bit – but nothing new there, as I remember from working with him myself.
And, oddly enough, the man whose roots are in the party's right runs what is probably the most Coalition-friendly department in government. He shares a Christian faith with Steve Webb, the Liberal Democrat pensions minister – and in any event Webb's ideal of a more simple, less mean-testing reliant pensions system fits harmoniously with the Tory view. Duncan Smith brings other pluses with him. While he is not exactly a loyalist, he hasn't caused trouble for Cameron over, say, the EU or same-sex marriage.
In the latter case, he seems to believe that same sex marriage is a price worth paying for marriage tax breaks – the grand bargain championed by my colleague (and his former one) Tim Montgomerie. But there is more to his new equanimity than that. "I never get demoralised these days," he said recently. "After all, I've been leader of the Conservative Party". He meant it. Duncan Smith has journeyed into the Valley of the Shadow of Death and returned. He is in that blessed state whereby no political sorrow can touch him further.
The Work and Pensions Secretary thus has an understanding born from experience of the trials of being party leader which makes him more kindly disposed to Cameron. No wonder that, with Hague and Ken Clarke, he is one of the team of seven Tory big hitters who advise the Prime Minister and part-fill the function that Cabinet used to. But there is a further reason why, unlike his friend Owen Paterson, this former Maastricht rebel hasn't pushed the boat out on the E.U, and it takes me back to where I started: to the Universal Credit.
What brought Duncan Smith back from the land of the political dead was his passion for social justice – an aspect of his leadership which may have been forgotten by others but certainly isn't by him. His journey from exile through the Centre for Social Justice is too well-known to re-tell, but it has won him respect from across the political spectrum, and beyond it. Labour has always tried to de-legitimise its opponents but, even in this post-banking crisis world, Duncan Smith's moral standing remains somehow unassailable. Interviewers treat him with respect.
This explains why Cameron, as he had hinted before the 2010 election, bought Duncan Smith back into government. There have been some spiky moments since with the Treasury over welfare savings, and the Work and Pensions Secretary, who sees the benefits freeze as regrettable necessity, is cool about the Grant Shapps-led attempt to frame it is strivers versus scroungers. Cameron and George wanted to move Duncan Smith to justice in the last reshuffle, partly as a way of reassuring the right over falling prison numbers.
But he is still at Work and Pensions and the Univeral Credit is on its way. After a spell on the Opposition front bench shadowing tax credits and an inquiry on a Select Committee into the Child Support Agency, I'm incapable of optimisim about projects that rely on real time reporting and government computer programmes. I hope I am wrong. I admire Duncan Smith very much. He is taking the fight to Labour on tax credits. This latter-day Wilberforce has been grafting away at the problem of poverty for so long as to grasp the detail.
Then again, of course, Wilberforce wasn't relying on a government computer programme to help abolish the slave trade.