It’s a bit pointless asking whether the Prime Minister has confidence in Iain Duncan Smith, so this morning his spokesman was asked a slightly different question: why does the Prime Minister have confidence in Iain Duncan Smith?

The spokesman replied:

‘Because the Secretary of State is leading this very important programme of welfare reform, which is so important to the economy and is the right thing to do on the grounds of fairness as well.’

He argued that the delay to the rollout of the credit was ‘absolutely the right thing’ because ‘the Universal Credit rollout was designed to be a gradual process that enables the project to take on board findings from the pilots and rollout process and to build on those. That is absolutely the right thing to be doing.’

The spokesman added:

‘We have always had a, there has always been  rollout timetable, but the wrong thing to do which, you know, the wrong thing to do would be what may have happened in previous years, is to have these complicated projects you just keep going to the end and then you are faced with having to try and retrofit the IT, which leads to very large scale disruption of people who are already in the scheme. This is an approach which has designed to be gradually rolled out and that is the right way to be doing it.’

The PM’s spokesman was hardly going to say anything else, but he’s right about the importance of pushing back deadlines so that people don’t get caught up in what he called ‘very large-scale disruption’. In the case of universal credit, ‘very large-scale disruption’ could be catastrophic, as this is the money that people need to be able to buy food. So of course it is better to scale things back until they work rather than soldier on (if you want an example of what happens when ministers do soldier on, do read Chris Hope and Richard Bacon’s recent book ‘Conundrum’ which details a series of big government cock-ups all of which seem to involve ministers trying to tell everyone else that things are fine until the whole edifice collapses about them).

But the snag with this is that while Iain Duncan Smith is right to push back the rollout, he has been rather adamant that universal credit will be ‘in time and on budget’. Today he was rather adamant that ‘it’s on budget’, which drops the first target. Perhaps with a welfare reform this big, and a Whitehall machine that isn’t quite a Rolls Royce, the target should simply have been for the darned thing to work.

Tags: Chris Hope, Iain Duncan Smith, Richard Bacon, Universal credit