It’s getting more bitter… As we learn that the Prime Minister reportedly called IDS ‘a s***’ on Friday, outriders are intensifying the firefight. Last night, Ros Altmann published an extraordinary attack on her former boss, complaining that he hadn’t allowed her to speak as she wished (other Junior Ministers might point out this wasn’t necessarily personal) and alleging that he had been looking for an excuse to resign. IDS allies will suspect No 10 of at minimum not discouraging her from opening fire in this way. Others have piled in, too – Stephen McPartland, a Leaver and tax credit rebel, so not a natural pawn of Downing Street, writes: ‘I will not be shedding any tears for the evangelical, aggressive and routinely failing welfare reforms that were the personal fiefdom of the Secretary of State for DWP.’
…in both directions. It would be untrue to claim the gunfire is only one-way. Bernard Jenkin accuses the Treasury of forcing Duncan Smith into making ‘morally indefensible’ cuts, while Owen Paterson takes the opportunity to fire both barrels at the Chancellor’s lack of strategic nous. An anonymous MP compares Osborne to the hapless Frank Spencer. Meanwhile, Altmann’s claims are now being riddled with holes by other DWP ministers, including Priti Patel. It was unwise of Altmann to make the situation more bitter and more personal – and by extension it was unwise of anyone more senior to sanction her doing so. IDS’ allies have shown they are not going to back down, so the potential for this to get even worse is clear.
The timeline is still disputed. Both sides have conflicting accounts of what went on over the PIP cuts – Downing Street says DWP was not just on board but effectively driving the policy, while Team IDS say they were forced into it, then the Treasury pulled a fast one by making the cash cut binding (ie if the money wasn’t saved this way, then it would have to come from another welfare cut instead), and that they have the written evidence to prove the Prime Minister’s part in it. The more nuclear buttons there are littered about the place, the higher the chance that someone will push one – on purpose or by accident.
Blessed are the peacemakers. The potential for the row to spiral out of control is evidently worrying some senior members of the Government – Michael Gove presents a masterclass in oil-pouring as he takes to troubled waters in the Sunday Telegraph – as a Leaver he is well-positioned to try to calm things down. But his success will depend on the ability and willingness of both sides to rein in their anger and put the Conservative Party first.
Osborne may be out of the leadership race. The primary target of the resignation letter was blisteringly clear – on the specifics of the policy, the generalities of fiscal policy and the reliability of his judgement, Duncan Smith was gunning for the Chancellor. According to Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times, this could be the death blow for Osborne’s ambitions – he isn’t stupid, and if he feels any leadership run is doomed then he will likely choose not to make one. If that is the case, then IDS will have had his revenge in spades. The twin questions in that circumstance are: 1) what impact would a shift in his plans have on his Chancellorship? and 2) given that he is in possession of a powerful machine within the parliamentary party, to whose benefit might he deploy it instead?