THOSE who think that it is implausible that the crowds lauded Jesus on Palm Sunday, and then shouted “Crucify him” only five days later, should remember that a week is a long time in politics — as the recent débâcle inside the Conservative government has shown.
Little more than a week ago, the Chancellor, George Osborne, produced a formidable performance, delivering a Budget package that combined an assault on the nation’s gigantic welfare-spending, and tax cuts to his wealthy friends in business, with a headline-grabbing sugar tax, no rise in petrol duty, and populist tax-allowances for people who sell things on eBay. Mr Osborne, who is not just Chancellor of the Exchequer but also the Tories’ main election strategist, was a wily political operator. “Something for everyone,” his backbenchers opined contentedly to one another.
How are the mighty fallen. Mr Osborne has once more proved to be — as someone once said of Jonathan Miller — too clever by three-quarters. His Budget has unravelled over cuts to disability allowances, much as his previous Budgets ended ingloriously with the pasty tax, the caravan tax, a U-turn on tax credits, and a general omnishambles. This time, the misjudgement was over £4-billion’s worth of benefit cuts to disabled people.
It was, however, the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith as Work and Pensions Secretary that fired a spectacular torpedo into HMS Osborne, by declaring that cuts in welfare for the disabled, coupled with tax cuts for the rich, gave the lie to the Chancellor’s insistence that “We are all in this together.” Briefings that the cuts would be dropped were not enough to head off a damaging resignation, which was immediately nicknamed “the IDS of March”.
Downing Street swiftly painted the departure as a move by Mr Duncan Smith to reinforce his credentials as a campaigner for the UK to leave the EU. It was said that he was irritated by the way that Boris Johnson had become de facto leader of the Brexit camp. What really upset him was that the Budget exposed UK impotence to amend EU rules on Sunday trading, the tampon tax, or even VAT on solar panels.
Certainly, IDS, for all his high-minded latter-day protest, has presided over five years of draconian assaults on the poor, in everything from the so-called “bedroom tax” to an increasingly punitive benefit-sanctions regime, which has hurt many of our most vulnerable citizens. Benefit payments can now be stopped for bad behaviour for anything between four and 156 weeks. Those affected have been found scavenging in bins for food, improvising babies’ nappies from kitchen paper and carrier bags, and — in the shocking case of one army veteran — dying of diabetic ketoacidosis after Job Centre staff cut off his money, and he was unable to pay his electricity bill, so that his bare fridge was useless for storing his insulin.
Whatever the political or personal grievances that lay behind this week’s eruption of Irritable Duncan Syndrome, what is clear is that he understood something that the clever Mr Osborne had failed to see. Punishing the poor while rewarding the rich violates something fundamental to the British sense of fair play.
Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.