If the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party suggested that politics can be unpredictable, the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) in a self-proclaimed stand for disabled people proves it.
Watching the former secretary of state for work and pensions tell Andrew Marr that the cuts are “hurting the most vulnerable” and that welfare cuts “are going too far” was more than surreal. This from a man who has steadfastly lied and denied his way around the true impact of welfare reform since 2010.
The week that IDS resigned began with mounting pressure on the government over disability benefit cuts. Tory MPs who had voted in favour of a cut to Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), were named and shamed as campaigners took not only to Twitter but also to the streets to express their outrage.
Members of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) tracked mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith around London on his campaign trail challenging the multimillionaire on his decision to vote in favour of cutting a third of the income of people found not fit for work. He was also among those MPs publicly sacked as patrons by disability organisations.
It was into this context that George Osborne delivered a budget announcing yet further cuts to disability benefits at the same time as tax breaks for the rich. The proposed changes to Personal Independence Payments (PIP) were estimated to affect around 640,000 people needing assistance with washing, dressing and going to the toilet.
In the same budget the chancellor lowered corporation tax from 18 percent to 17 percent and raised the threshold for higher rate income tax by more than £2,500. Now it was Osborne who was in trouble. A publicity stunt on the Friday after the budget had to be cancelled as angry protesters shouted that he had blood on his hands.
Later that day IDS unexpectedly and dramatically announced his resignation, stating that he had “for some time come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled and the context in which they’ve been made are a compromise too far — they are not defensible in the way they were placed in a budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers.” He also questioned whether “enough had been done to ensure we are all in this together”.
On the Sunday he appeared on the Andrew Marr show suggesting ministers are targeting benefits for working age people rather than pensioners because “they don’t vote for us”. The next day the new secretary of state for work and pensions, Stephen Crabb, announced a complete government u-turn on the PIP changes. The chancellor was conspicuous by his absence from the chamber.
So what does this whole episode tell us? It doesn’t tell us that IDS is sorry for all the avoidable suffering and harm his welfare reforms have caused. He conveniently found a conscience just as the DWP was running out of excuses not to publish presumably damning reports into Universal Credit and peer reviews into benefit deaths. It also doesn’t guarantee that there aren’t more welfare cuts to come. If the Treasury can’t make the £4.4 billion in savings it was planning through PIP it will have to take them from elsewhere or risk further humiliation in missing Osborne’s self-imposed welfare cap.
What this episode does show is that the Tories are imploding. Internal fighting over the EU combined with leadership ambitions are dividing and weakening the party. This is happening at the same time as they are trying to push through harder cuts that more sharply expose their ideological agenda and take on ever wider sections of workers.
There is both a crisis at the top and a growing mood of resistance from below. This culminated on the following Wednesday, which started during Prime Ministers Questions with a DPAC protest in the lobby of parliament calling for the Tory chancellor Osborne to go, and ended with thousands of teachers marching on the Department for Education calling for joint strikes with junior doctors and the resignation of education secretary Nicky Morgan.
Now is the time and the opportunity to get bolder. We got IDS, now let’s get the rest.
Ellen Clifford is a DPAC activist