By Paul Goodman
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The Prime Minister's official spokesman is scarcely likely to say: "Universal Credit? It won't work and is too costly". So the Sun's report this morning of him declaring that the scheme is "on time and on budget" shouldn't raise eyebrows. But such statements are a sign of trouble: Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary (and the most powerful non-politician in Team Cameron) is nervous about the credit. Giving evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee yesterday, the Work and Pensions Secretary answered criticisms of how it will be administered: the Independent has a report. Meanwhile, the Financial Times (£) reports another policy difficulty: that some pensionsers could lose from Steve Webb's flat-rate state pension plan.
I have heard Mr Duncan Smith explain that rolling at least five benefit payments into one will work, since the computer programme that will help administer the credit won't be introduced in a "Big Bang". The Independent reports Lord Freud, now a Minister in the Work and Pensions Secretary's Department, saying that computer trials to date have gone "remarkably smoothly".
"It's literally pressing one extra button. You do the payroll then
you press one extra button to send it over to HMRC," he is quoted as saying. However, the pilot has to date reportedly tested only computer links between employers and HMRC, not between HMRC and the Department.
I have to confess that I am scarred by first having sat on a Work and Pensions Select Committee Enquiry into the Child Support Agency, and then shadowed the workings of Gordon Brown's tax credit system while on David Cameron's front bench. My crude but strong sense is that Government computers cope well with relatively straightforward payments such as child benefit (to date: George Osborne is of course about to make it more complex) and the state pension. But they are not so hot at managing "real time" claims – in other words, payments that fluctuate according to income and circumstances.
The Chancellor clearly wanted Mr Duncan Smith to move to Justice in the last reshuffle and be replaced at Work and Pensions by Chris Grayling. He believed that Mr Grayling, a details man to his fingertips, was more likely than his then boss to deliver the £10 billion of welfare savings the Treasury wants, and to get on top of potential problems with the Universal Credit. But it is, frankly, a bit late for Mr Osborne to want Mr Duncan Smith not to be Mr Duncan Smith. The Work and Pensions Secretary fights for his budget. That's the way he is. He also has a vision of a single payment helping to get poorer people into work. That's the way he is too.
And the Chancellor, David Cameron's key strategist, will have played a part in putting Mr Duncan Smith in his present position. The Conservative Work and Pensions spokesman in opposition was Theresa May, and the Prime Minister could quite easily have appointed some other Shadow Cabinet member (such as David Willetts, a social policy expert) to the Department when he made Mrs May Home Secretary. Instead, Team Cameron recognised Mr Duncan Smith's passion for social justice and the respect it wins even from the left-wing welfare lobbies. The Work and Pensions is treated by the media with a respect that other Cabinet Ministers are often denied.
Like William Hague, Mr Duncan Smith has journeyed into the Valley of Despond as party leader and returned from it unillusioned and personally ambitionless: he has been there, done that and got over it. But while I can't imagine the Foreign Secretary leaving the Government over a policy disagreement – since Mr Hague is the ultimate loyalist – the Work and Pensions Secretary is a different animal, and a chart-topping one among party activists, too: he consistently tops our monthly poll of activists. Having appointed Mr Duncan Smith, Downing Street and the Treasury don't have to like him but they'll have to lump him.