Stephen Tall, the author of a fortnightly column on this site, runs a series on Liberal Democrat Voice, which he edits, called Liberal Hero of The Week. Steve Webb, the Pensions Minister and a member of the same Party as Stephen, is not my Conservative Hero of The Week. That award goes to George Osborne, whose radical savings reforms may turn out to have the same voter-winning appeal to this generation as council house sales did to the last – a point made by Priti Patel on ConservativeHome today. But Webb gets the silver medal for making an argument for the Government’s plans that is both conservative and liberal – in the best and real sense of that word.
“If people do get a Lamborghini, and end up on the state pension, the state is much less concerned about that, and that is their choice,” he said. In other words, people are better judges of how to live their lives than the state. The words of the Liberal Democrat Pensions Minister were startling – not for their content, which should be uncontentious, but for their source: his party, after all, is closer to being a social democratic than a truly liberal one. But they were a reminder that, like the party with which they are in coalition, the Lib Dems can trace part of their family story back to the nineteenth-century Liberal Party. Webb’s words were Gladstonian as well as Thatcherite.
There is more to the Minister, however, than support for the Chancellor – no matter how pithily expressed. When historians pore over how this Coalition survived for five strained years (as we must presume it will), they could do worse than study the MP for Northavon. I was part of the Conservative Work and Pensions team in the Commons when Webb was leading his, and the convergence between his party’s thinking and ours over pensions was perhaps an early sign of the coalition to come. Week after week, he and David Willetts made much the same case in the Commons: Gordon Brown’s mass means-testing of pensions was helping to destroy savings.
And was not just the analysis that overlapped, but the solutions. Both parties proposed linking the state pension to earnings again, thereby reducing the need for means-testing and increasing the incentive to save. So it should have come as no surprise when Webb was made Pensions Minister after the Coalition was formed, from which position he has been quietly re-shaping state pension provision. The “triple guarantee” has been applied to the state pension. A single tier state pension will be introduced. Auto-enrollment is coming in. When it comes to steering through pension reform, Conservative and Liberal Democrat hands have been on the tiller, not at each other’s throats.
That Webb has worked so harmoniously with his Tory colleagues is one sense surprising. For although he was a contributor to the Orange Book, he is not an Orange Booker in the commonly understood sense – that’s to say, someone associated with the right wing of his party. Back in the 1990s, the then professor of social policy sat on the Commission for Social Justice established by John Smith. But the commonality of interest between the two coalition parties over pensions has helped to make the Work and Pensions Department one of the most harmonious in government.
Iain Duncan Smith has wisely concentrated his energies on benefits and let Webb deal with pensions: a common Christian faith may have eased their co-operation. Conservative opinion will always differ about whether the Coalition should have been formed at all, but on one point there should be agreement. The presence of the Lib Dems in government has made it easier to drive through welfare reform: very often, it is Webb who has been put up by the Government to make the case in the Commons for ending the spare room subsidy. That runner-up medal has been hard earned.