Iain Duncan Smith

The “quiet man” has nerves of steel, and his welfare reform may make the Conservatives the natural party of government again

Social Affairs UK Politics Underrated Welfare State Westminster

I first came to know Iain Duncan Smith in 2001. I had a junior role in producing that election year’s Tory manifesto. IDS would call every day to check that William Hague’s pro-marriage policies hadn’t been diluted by Michael Portillo’s Treasury team. He was Shadow Defence Secretary at the time and had no responsibility for family policy. Nonetheless, he had decided to champion this cause fearlessly.

That fearlessness, learnt on the streets of Ulster where he served as a Scots Guards officer, was evident from his earliest days as an MP. Succeeding Norman Tebbit as MP for Chingford and Woodford Green, he was one of the Maastricht rebels who caused John Major so much grief in the early 1990s. 

Again, in 2001, when he stood as a “no hope” candidate for Tory leader he showed his courage and bloody-mindedness. He stood as the standard-bearer of the Right and defeated Ken Clarke, who represented the Left, and Michael Portillo, who led the party’s modernisers. 

His enemies in the party, notably whips from the Major era, plotted his downfall as soon as he won the party leadership. By the time the trigger for a no-confidence vote was pulled, the Conservative whips, who should have been his Praetorian guard, urged IDS to resign to avoid a “humiliating” defeat. He refused and became known as “steel balls” as he fought and only narrowly lost the challenge that quickly led to Michael Howard becoming Conservative leader.

Although the party was performing respectably in opinion polls, Tory MPs felt IDS lacked basic communication skills. Despicably, his opponents used false claims against his wife, Betsy, to bring him down. Howard, in a sign that he may have known much more about the anti-IDS coup than has so far been suggested, refused to take action against those who started the false attacks when he was given the opportunity to do so.

Today, IDS is rehabilitated and the Cabinet colleagues who doubt his determination to pursue welfare reform would be wise to note his rocky rise. When, in 2003, he lost the leadership he didn’t take on lucrative directorships (although they were offered) but launched his Centre for Social Justice.

It is wrong to say that there was a single “road to Damascus” moment for IDS, the “poverty-fighter”. His 2001 pitch for the Tory leadership included a strong emphasis on civil-society-based solutions to poverty. But a visit to Glasgow’s Easterhouse, early in his leadership, crystallised his purpose. Here was an estate where poverty was passed from one generation to another. Hope was as dead as the state was dominant. As he toured that estate on a wet, grey day, he observed a child’s discarded teddy bear alongside the paraphernalia of a drug addict. He didn’t decide that day to make social justice a part of his political mission. That commitment already existed. He did, however, decide that fighting poverty should be the number one purpose of his politics.

The solutions that the CSJ subsequently developed have always been rooted in the life experiences of the kind of people IDS met in Easterhouse. He believes that every social problem is being solved by somebody, somewhere, and you just need to find that somebody or organisation and learn from them. The Centre’s alliance of effective poverty-fighters has been engaged in that search for five years and has developed an unrivalled database of groups that have successfully fought every social ill such as drug addiction, homelessness and long-term unemployment. It’s why it calls itself a “do tank”, rather than a “think tank”.

IDS is now in a position to “do” rather than “think” but his welfare-reforming goal of “making work pay” is expensive. When Treasury coffers were overflowing, Gordon Brown failed to eliminate the disincentives to work that face low-income people. Duncan Smith and the Chancellor, George Osborne, are attempting the same massive task at a time when Britain has run out of money. If success were a matter of willpower the battle would already be won. To achieve success, IDS needs to find skills of teamsmanship that this unclubbable maverick has rarely demonstrated.

If he succeeds, it won’t just be Britain’s poorest communities that will benefit. More than any other Conservative politician, IDS understands that conservatism can only flourish in relatively wealthy nations if it acts with its heart as well as its head. A decisive portion of floating voters don’t just want a government that is good for them; they also want a government that is good for their neighbours, at home and further afield.

An aroma of good intentions has lifted entities like Labour, the NHS and the UN much higher than their performances merit. People have been willing to forgive them their faults because they are seen as founded in worthy goals. If IDS and this Conservative-led government can deliver welfare reform, if they become the champion of a new generation of poverty-fighting charities, the Left is in trouble. A Conservative Party that is as socially concerned as it is economically effective will once again become Britain’s natural party of government.