Allowing Iain Duncan Smith to dig his heels in at the Work and Pensions department in last week’s reshuffle sent out two messages. The first was that the Prime Minister is not as authoritative as he should be: telling someone that you’d rather they moved to one department, but that it’s ok for them to remain where they are isn’t exactly ‘butch’, to borrow the PM’s own favourite word. The second is that the Prime Minister was worried about the future of the DWP’s reforms, and was keen to put someone else in charge of implementing the behemoth computer system for the universal credit, even though events meant he was unable to do so.
Liam Byrne prodded Duncan Smith on this today at Work and Pensions questions. He told the Commons:
‘It is quite clear that the Treasury thinks there will be a state of chaos around Universal Credit. The Cabinet Office thinks there is chaos, Number 10 thinks there is chaos. Surely it is time he told the House exactly what is going on, and put before us the business case that he is trying to keep secret from this House, or is there something that he is trying to hide?’
The Secretary of State replied that he had ‘nothing to hide here’, that the universal credit would not cost more than £2.5 billion, and that ‘we will deliver universal credit on time and on budget as it is right now’. He also told Byrne that he had heard him describe the reform as ‘a car crash in the making’ at the weekend, pointing out that ‘I need no advice from the man who sat there and produced the biggest car crash in economic history’.
Labour knows that there is meat to be gained from stalking universal credit from now on, and is holding an opposition day debate tomorrow on that subject. While Duncan Smith doesn’t need to take advice from Byrne, he needs to be wary of refusing to take advice from those around him. His greatest failing would be to be too starry-eyed about the good principles of his reforms to accept that there are real threats to their success.