Baroness Altmann’s short time in Government has not been a happy one. Last July she had to deny that she was prejudging a Government consultation on pension tax relief, after attacking ideas floated by the Treasury. In September it emerged that she was a member of the Labour Party – an unusual position for a Conservative minister. For some months, Downing Street has reportedly been uncomfortable about her speaking publicly.
But last night she eclipsed these rumbling issues with a jaw-dropping public statement about Iain Duncan Smith, her now former boss. In it, she attacked him personally (calling him “exceptionally difficult to work for”), disputes his stated reason for resigning (claiming, as Downing Street does, that he “personally championed” the PIP cuts) and alleges that his real reason for going is the EU referendum.
Who knows what her motive for doing so might be – it could be a Downing Street-sponsored broadside to back up their narrative (though they deny it), it could be born of personal animus at being “silenced” by him or it could be a matter of different opinions on the EU question. Whichever if is the case, it’s a remarkable thing for a junior minister to do at the best of times, and a downright irresponsible act in a tense situation.
As a result, Altmann has put herself in a very difficult position:
- Three of her DWP colleagues – Priti Patel, Shailesh Vara and Justin Tomlinson – have come out to reject her version of events;
- Her new boss, Stephen Crabb, is unlikely to now feel that she’s an entirely safe pair of hands, given her decision to publicly attack his predecessor;
- Conservative MPs like Andrew Percy are fizzing about the way she has acted, and the large number of them who are Leavers understandably see this is an assault on them, too.
As if that wasn’t enough, today’s Sunday Times reports that she has also chosen to criticise the Chancellor’s new Lifetime ISA savings scheme – an impressively scattergun example of someone laying into disloyalty at the same time as undermining their own Government’s policy.
A lot of Tory MPs are concerned that the leadership has overstepped the mark in its treatment of Duncan Smith. Furthermore, Eurosceptics resent the attempt to “smear” IDS’ resignation as motivated by the EU referendum, and some are disgruntled that he was replaced with a Remain supporter. Altmann has delivered a public punishment beating to IDS in a way totally out of keeping with the traditions of ministerial conduct at the same time as criticising a Budget measure in a field relating to her own brief. Numbers 10 and 11 say that she acted without their approval. They could prove it by sacking her – they might shed a difficult colleague and sate a bit of backbench anger in the process.