Will the real Iain Duncan Smith please stand up? The self-styled quiet man of British politics is a hard subject to paint in broad brush strokes. A former army officer, IDS – as he is known to many – is often seen in the mould of Norman Tebbit, the MP for Chingford, whose seat he inherited in 1992.
Duncan Smith was one of the first politicians to back calls for the invasion of Iraq following the 9/11 attacks in the US. A committed Catholic, he has extolled the virtues of marriage and was at one stage opposed to the repeal of section 28, the controversial policy banning schools from promoting homosexuality that was scrapped in 2003. Significantly, it was Margaret Thatcher’s backing for IDS that helped win him the leadership in 2001.
But to see Duncan Smith simply as a son of Tebbit is to repeat the error made by many of his opponents, including some in the Tory party, who mistake him for just another “roll-back-the-state” Thatcherite, for whom cutting public spending represents an all-encompassing ideology.
At the heart of the often private, but sometimes public, row between Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions and George Osborne’s Treasury was his view that the benefits system could be pared back only so far. This observation has been informed by his own political journey.
It owes much to the Centre for Social Justice, the centre-right thinktank that Duncan Smith co-founded in 2004, following a deeply unsuccessful spell as Conservative party leader between 2001 and 2003. Its mission was to develop innovative ways of alleviating poverty, a cause for which Duncan Smith became evangelical after a 2002 visit to Easterhouse in Glasgow. In one of the poorest areas in Britain, he was almost reduced to tears by the poverty that confronted him.
Down the years the Easterhouse epiphany was replaced by a brutal approach to welfare that appears to be driven largely by financial expediency. Duncan Smith’s critics can cite considerable evidence to bolster their case. As secretary of state for work and pensions he has presided over a dramatic curtailing of benefits that has alarmed charities and anti-poverty groups. His acute focus on compelling disabled and sick people to seek work – at the risk of them losing benefits if they refused – was viewed as draconian by human rights campaigners.
The “bedroom tax” – which forced people on benefits living in social housing to pay extra for spare bedrooms – was met with widespread protests. The pace and scale of the shake-ups that IDS sought to make to the benefits system compounded problems. Often the delivery of his ambitious policies was not matched by the lofty aspirations he had for them. His big idea – universal credit– under which benefit claimants would receive a single monthly payment has been a car crash. Repeatedly delayed, its rollout has been beset by IT problems and the subject of severe criticism by independent watchdogs, including the National Audit Office.
Ultimately the parlous state of the public finances exposed in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis made the benefits system an easy target for the Treasury’s aggressive cutting. For a while, Duncan Smith played along as he tried to reconcile his views on social justice with his hard-wired Thatcherite sympathies. These tensions could not remain below the surface indefinitely.
Aware of the damage it would do to a prime minister battling to wrestle the initiative away from the Vote Leave campaign, the “quiet man” roared. They heard it in Downing Street, in the Treasury and in Brussels. Its echoes may still be reverberating on 23 June.