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Coffee House

Iain Duncan Smith was defending welfare reform from his own colleagues as well as the Left

23 January 2014

7:56 PM

23 January 2014

7:56 PM

Compassionate Conservatism has taken a bit of a kicking in the past few months: from leftwing critics who want to claim it is dead (but who always disagreed with its central premise anyway) and from certain Conservatives such as George Osborne who prefer a nice political dividing line. But today, as previewed in the Spectator last week, Iain Duncan Smith restated the need for this key strand of Tory thinking, and he set it firmly within the Conservative reforming tradition, saying:

‘As Conservatives, that is part of our Party’s historic mission – just look at Wilberforce and Shaftesbury – to put hope back where it has gone, to give people from chaotic lives security through hard work… helping families to improve the quality of their own lives.’

Some might dismiss this as grandiose, and others as blinkered to the reality of what the Conservatives are doing in government (it is striking that ministers tend to describe the ‘bedroom tax’ as ‘Lord Freud’s policy’, and if Universal Credit were the only indicator of the health of Compassionate Conservatism, then it would be requiring urgent medical attention). But what IDS is saying here is that this is an indispensable part of Conservatism: and it needs defending. It is significant that even those Tory MPs demoralised by the reality of government consistently name IDS and Michael Gove as the signs of radicalism that keep them going.

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Indeed, other ministers want to follow their example. I wrote in August that Jeremy Hunt is modelling himself on Michael Gove in his own mission to be the ‘patients’ champion’, and James’s politics column today reveals the next step in that mission: plans for every patient in hospital to have a named doctor looking after them for their whole stay.

Duncan Smith today continued to defend his mission from colleagues, advising against ‘finger-wagging’ and being ‘judgemental’ and blaming those caught in the system. But there’s another interesting similarity when it comes to language between Hunt, Gove and IDS: all three are concerned with trying to wrestle the moral high ground from Labour. This was particularly clear at the Conservatives’ autumn conference, when one afternoon in particular was focused almost entirely on the moral high ground.

But IDS has had to defend welfare reform far more than Gove and Hunt have had to fight their corners on schools and the NHS. Some of this is for a good reason: the number of Cabinet ministers and Number 10 bigwigs who really would bet more than 50p on the Universal Credit is dwindling. But as much as he was reminding everyone today that ‘we would have wanted to reform the welfare state, even if we had no deficit’, the Work and Pensions Secretary was also defending his central mission against the planned future attack from the Chancellor on benefits. Who was he more concerned about defending his welfare reform from – the openly opposed Left, or his own colleagues? It’s not quite clear, but the latter is certainly the harder task.

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