David Aaronovitch’s furious Times column this morning described Ed Miliband as a vulture, swooping down on problems caused by this government rather than leading. If he wanted another example of how this leadership style has affected the rest of the Labour party, he could have done worse than to attend the Commons urgent question on universal credit this morning. There, Liam Byrne attacked Iain Duncan Smith’s handling of the project, saying:
‘What I want to say to the Secretary of State, however, is this: he has let this House form a picture of universal credit, which the nation’s auditor’s say is wrong. The most charitable explanation is that he has lost control of the programme and lost control of the department. He must now correct the record. He must now apologise to the House and convene cross-party talks to get this project back on track. The quiet man must not become the cover-up man.’
Iain Duncan Smith didn’t like this, funnily enough, and told Byrne that it was ‘suitably pathetic’ and that the meetings between the two men had been ‘unmemorable in every single case’. But Byrne’s attack was based on a number of apparently contradictory statements that the Work and Pensions Secretary has made. Labour points out the disparity between IDS telling the Commons that universal credit ‘is proceeding exactly in accordance with plans’ in March 2013 and the National Audit Office highlighting in its report that the programme was in fact reset in February, and also that the timetable for universal credit had been fundamentally changed by the end of 2012.
Today was not a good day for Duncan Smith. But he did make a point that has lasting resonance about the way Labour campaigns. He told Byrne:
‘The right hon. Gentleman’s party has said that it supports universal credit, and I was happy to receive that support, but Opposition Members have continually voted against it and carped about it. I think that it would be far better for him to ensure that they stay the course.’
Universal credit is fertile territory for Byrne. Even ministers who back the project privately acknowledge that it would be potty for Labour not to go after it. But Duncan Smith’s point is that Labour either can’t bring itself to oppose the project, or admit that it is a good idea. This would involve taking a position. So instead, the party feeds on bad news like a vulture. There might be a great deal more to come from universal credit. But as Aaronovitch explained this morning, feasting on a mess is the job of an opposition, not a party preparing for government.Tags: Ed Miliband, Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Byrne, UK politics, Universal credit, Welfare