Earlier, I republished my interview with Stephen Crabb, the new Work and Pensions Secretary. He was, then, Wales Secretary – not all of his (many) thoughts on welfare reform made the cut. So I’ve been through the transcript, and posted more of this comments below: they give a better idea of what the new welfare secretary is like.
At the time, benefits had been cut in the post-election Budget. Crabb was a bit nervous, saying-:
‘You have always got to handle the issue of welfare with care because you are dealing with support mechanisms for Britain’s most vulnerable people. That’s what welfare is. You’ve got to take care of the issue. But we should take encouragement from the election result, even in Wales: there is a strong measure of support for the mainstream of British opinion for changes that we want to make and so long as we keep demonstrating that what we are doing is helping to foster the employment growth and the other positive economic changes that welfare reforms. As long as we keep being able to demonstrate that, I think we’ll take public opinion with us.
‘We talk about the remarkable recovery across the UK over the last three or four years and it has been incredible. You don’t get that without having reformed welfare. It is a key part in driving the fall in unemployment, we have to keep articulating that – and we shouldn’t be shy about saying and challenging the other parties.
‘Every party should want to see welfare spending come down. That should be an aspiration for all of us because what you’re saying is we are working towards a society where there are fewer people caught in dependency, fewer people who are out of work and need that intervention from the state. The huge strategic error that Labour made was equating compassion with how high your spending figures were for welfare.’
And Crabb’s backstory – certainly not a stereotypical one – is often talked about as a key advantage for the MP who could have a shot at the Tory leadership one day. It’s also pretty handy for someone who is now in charge of welfare reform.
‘My experience of growing up: She started working just a few hours each week, increasing her hours and then moving to a position where with extra training she was able to move into full-time work, become a car owner, and reach full economic independence.
‘And for me that is absolutely the model of how the welfare system should work, it sustains people at a crisis in their lives and provides the incentive and the push – if necessary – to get them moving back on a journey back into work.
‘When we talk about all these different changes to benefits and we focus on one particular change. You need to stand back and look at it in the round. So long as the overall effect of our welfare package is to keep moving people towards sustainable pathways out of poverty – which does mean work – then that has to be a good thing and that will carry the support of the country.
‘Universal credit has the potential to be absolutely transformational in welfare and the effect it will have on benefits.’
What is significant is that Crabb is someone who believes in Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reform mission. He is known to get on with Osborne but is not from the Chancellor’s inner circle (which makes it more difficult for any plan to kill off Universal Credit to succeed). Osborne’s support for the reform has never been wholehearted. Like IDS, Crabb approaches welfare reform from a moral, religious point of view. Both are practising Christians and believers in the concept of redemption.
Crabb also has a key ally in Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives leader who isn’t afraid to criticise policies introduced by her Westminster colleagues when she doesn’t like them, including the tax credit cuts that George Osborne had to abandon last year. I accompanied the pair, who are good friends, on a visit to a youth centre during Tory conference last year. They were keen to get out of the conference bubble and meet young people who felt that politics was a million miles away from them, and I was struck by how comfortable both of them were in a non-Westminster setting. Davidson recently tipped her friend as a future Tory leader. Today, he has moved a step closer to that.