Beware the Ides of March! So said the soothsayer to Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s version of the Roman dictator’s March 15th assassination. George Osborne, who loves reading about historical political figures and who is, almost indisputably the current ruler of Westminster, would have been wise to ask his political rival Boris Johnson for a Classics lesson. Like Julius Caesar, Osborne was ruler of his domain, but like Caesar he underestimated the quiet man of conviction. Iain Duncan Smith was his Brutus. And on the ides of March (well IDS waited an extra day because of leap year) the patriot so ended the political career of the ruler.
That introduction may be over-egging the significance of Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation but politically it may have truly been an assassination. The Tory grassroots have grown to hate Osborne. The left already hated Osborne. But in the corridors of the House of Commons, Osborne was feared because Cameron had de facto ceded running of the government to him and those close to Osborne get promotions. However, with IDS’s resignation all of that has changed. According to Yougov polling from 22 March 2016 he has never been more unpopular with the public. MPs are blasting him from all across the House. The press, especially on the right, is coming at Osborne wielding knives with the ferociousness of Brutus’s accomplices. Even his allies, such as Matthew Parris, have called on him to resign. Et tu Matthew? George Osborne was so humiliated he did not show up in the House of Commons to defend his budget on Monday.
There is plenty more about the political intrigue all throughout the press better written and explained than I can offer. What I would like to offer though, is some perspective that I hope can contribute to getting the Conservative government back to focusing on policy and not personalities.
I am a longtime fan of Iain Duncan Smith. I consider him a political hero. At the age of 13 I supported his leadership bid for the Conservative party. I even named my Yahoo email account after him. To this day, I admire his conviction and strong belief in Great Britain. He is everything Osborne is not. Iain Duncan Smith served the country in the military. His passions are deep and true. He fought against John Major over EU integration and cares so deeply about poverty he founded the Centre for Social Justice. He was even unemployed for a brief time after the army. In his six years as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions he presided over the biggest jobs revolution in British history. The UK now has record employment– a much higher percentage of employed people than the United States. IDS’s belief in the dignity of work truly transformed the fortunes of so many of the people at the lowest echelons of society.
George Osborne is almost the polar opposite of Iain Duncan Smith. He is a man who is by most accounts driven by one plan and one plan only, becoming Prime Minister. His friendship and closeness to David Cameron has made the Prime Minister comfortable enough to effectively hand over the machinery of government to the Chancellor. But his ruling of Westminster, deciding who gets promotions, and political gamesmanship with the nation’s finances has made Osborne appear thoroughly unlikable to most observers. Gone, it appeared, was the slightly overweight man tearfully mourning the loss of Margaret Thatcher at her funeral and in his place the in-shape image driven spinster master of the political universe. After his Autumn Statement I asked the biblical question of Osborne “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Many of late seem to be questioning if he has a soul at all.
Which brings me to the blow up that caused Iain Duncan Smith to move to destroy Osborne’s political career. This resignation is undoubtedly of Osborne’s making. By all accounts, Osborne treats IDS very poorly. Apparently, the highly-educated upper-class Osborne looks down on the sincere right wing Iain Duncan Smith. There are reports that Osborne does not consider Iain Duncan Smith particularly intelligent. The two apparently have had numerous verbal spats. So over the past six years when Osborne needed to make cuts to balance the budget he chose Iain Duncan Smith’s department- presumably knowing that the left would blame the ex-Tory leader. And predictably the left have vilified IDS. This pushed IDS to the brink. After Osborne again chose IDS as the man whose department to cut IDS lost it and resigned in a fit of fury. Frankly, I don’t blame IDS. Every person has their breaking point.
With that being said, even though I believe Iain Duncan Smith’s reaction was sincere and a volcanic eruption was due to years of mistreatment, if one takes the emotion out of it his reaction he may have been making a mountain out of a mole hill. In comparison to his disastrous 2015 Autumn Statement, and with the exception of the idiotic and gimmicky “sugar levy”, I thought the 2016 budget was fairly good. It cut taxes for millions of Britons and was especially a boon for small businesses– with 600,000 taken out of tax altogether. It cut corporate tax to an even lower 17%! I have a sneaking suspicion Osborne may have been trying to placate the Tory right before the EU referendum. But still, this is what Britain needs- especially considering that recent tax receipts after tax cuts have confirmed the Laffer Curve is right. Furthermore, the welfare “cuts” were relatively modest compared to other actual cuts in budget’s past. What it merely did was try to limit the scope of Personal Independence Payments (“PIPs”) because courts have expanded what qualifies as a necessity- now for instance a bed qualifies as an “appliance” eligible for government assistance. However, I do sympathise in a sense with Iain Duncan Smith because if this budget was to be passed with the PIPs cuts included he would again be portrayed as the man wanting to harm the poor.
So if Iain Duncan Smith was reacting emotionally, am I saying that George Osborne was completely right about the budget? No, not at all. There are a lot more important and less politically toxic cuts Osborne could make than to PIPs. The two areas to start with, well not to be a kipper, but they are obviously foreign aid and the EU. If you cannot balance the budget of your own country you should not be handing out 0.7% of the UK’s GDP in foreign aid. I believe in foreign aid, but should one really be handing out British taxpayers money while the country goes deeper in debt? How about 0.3 or even 0.5% of national GDP going to foreign aid? That is extremely generous, will help Britain continue to exert soft power around the world but will help avoid party blow ups and expanding deficits.
Of course, the UK could balance its budget if it wasn’t handing £20 billion a year to the EU. Yes, with the rebate some of that money comes back- but the UK is still losing £8.5 billion annually. Having an extra £10-20 billion would surely only help with the budget deficit. John Redwood, in an excellent piece for the Telegraph explains how leaving the EU would fix many of the budget issues. To further the point, Canada who has free trade with the EU and until this year a Conservative government, balanced their budget. What surely needs to happen is that the UK needs to vote to leave the EU so that the money going to the EU returns to Exchequer coffers. Furthermore, a Leave Vote will surely only empower “proper Tories.”
In the mean time, although I have been hard on the Prime Minister as of late for his bizarre and often comical embracing of “Project Fear” to win the EU Referendum for Remain, I believe he struck the right note in the House of Commons in his “making peace” between Osborne and IDS on Monday. David Cameron was further right to remind the House that the deficit is not “free money” but is debt our children and grandchildren will have to pay back. As much as I think Osborne is a political animal with seemingly little conscience, I believe he has, for the most part, been a fairly able Chancellor. After all, the UK is the fastest growing economy in the G7.
Iain Duncan Smith has been an exemplary historic reformer. The Conservative party should not destroy itself over economic budget issues when the opposition, though currently impotent, is so dangerous. Corbyn is a Communist sympathiser and terrorist sympathiser you don’t want to be feeding him, as weak as he currently is, language about “cruel Tories.” In this instance, I think responsibility falls to the Prime Minister to unite the party- and I am encouraged by his statement on Monday. Furthermore, I am relived that the government passed the budget, with even Iain Duncan Smith voting for it; albeit with the welfare cuts removed. That was the right step- a government defeating its own budget would be have been disastrous. Tories must be cautious before launching assaults on their own party going forward.
As I wrote last month, the Conservative Party does need a revolution of sorts. We on the right need to seize the party from those who see the party as a stepping stone to the upper echelons of power. However, that fight must be won on the EU referendum where the vast majority of Labour is on the side of the Tory “squishes.” So I beg those on the right, keep your knives in the holster over issues that could benefit Labour like welfare cuts. Victory is ours for the taking June 23rd- the IDS of June will be much more effective than the IDS of March.