It was cruel of the BBC’s Andrew Marr to compare David Cameron and George Osborne to the TV presenters Ant and Dec writes Andy Stowe. One pair does nothing more than host frothy light entertainment shows and engage in elaborate tax scams, while the other plans to hand every school over to private companies; lied about the NHS budget crisis; is destroying social housing; has presided over a rise in the number of people using food banks from 61,000 in 2010-11 to more than one million in 2014-15 and is responsible for dozens of suicides (at least) of people who’ve had their benefits cut.
Marr’s point was that just as even their own mothers find it hard to tell the difference between the two Saturday evening stalwarts, Cameron and Osborne are the joint architects of a strategy to massively shift the balance of power in favour of their class, undo all the post 1947 gains made by working people in Britain and continue a transfer of wealth from the poor to the very rich. Their policy of making it virtually impossible for most people now to find homes outside the private rented sector is a talismanic example of this. If one is in trouble, the other’s career starts to look very uncertain. To use a TV example from long ago, no one wanted to watch Ernie Wise on Saturday night without Eric Morecombe.
Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the Tory cabinet is going to have long term consequences for Cameron and Osborne. We can utterly disregard his claim to be the voice of compassionate Toryism (sic). A couple of days beforehand he’d been lobbying other Tory MPs trying to persuade them not to rebel against a proposal to cut £30 a week from people with disabilities. He falsely claimed that 75 per cent of people who’d had their benefits stopped under his department’s sanctions policy said it helped them “focus and get on.” A committee of MPs reported that: “benefit sanctions are controversial because they withhold subsistence-level benefits from people who may have little or no other income” and added that they were disproportionately hitting people with mental health problems and learning disabilities.
Duncan Smith may have been willing to quibble over some of the details about how austerity was implemented but his only disagreement is that more people should be feeling more pain. In particular he’s keen for pensioners to be made poorer. He’s had nothing to say about wasting money on Trident or the reduction in corporation tax. He really is the quiet man when it comes to the bedroom tax, building council houses or restoring rates of taxation to the levels they were at in Thatcher’s early years of government. It may be that he has lain awake in the night thinking about the misery he’s inflicted on millions of people as part of the Cameron Osborne government, but that really is irrelevant. He’s a Tory in favour of making working people and pensioners pay for a capitalist crisis.
His major contribution is that he has severely damaged the most right wing government of the post-war period. His resignation letter is a dishonest balancing act in which he mostly supports reductions in benefits while acknowledging that austerity was always a political choice rather than an economic necessity: “I am unable to watch passively while certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.” If he’d been on the same side of the Brexit argument as Cameron and Osborne he would not have planted this bomb in the foundations of their government. He’d have wrestled with his tortured conscience for another few years. Instead it’s civil war among the Tories and, class warriors that they are, they will fight to win using every weapon that comes to hand.
The timing of Duncan Smith’s resignation is important. Cameron’s government is openly divided. Osborne will either resign or the pressure for him to go will become so overwhelming that he’ll be sacked. The EU referendum is going to be tight. Whatever the result, Cameron is universally seen to have lost all authority within his party. His future is no more secure than his sidekick’s and the three big fault lines in the party have widened. The UKIP tendency is big and hopes to have a good referendum. The hard right ideologues clustered around Gove will hunker down and carry on producing ideas on how to shrink the state’s role in providing services, jobs and infrastructure. The liberal right might scatter to the four winds. None of this will happen in the immediate future, but the Tories are without a big idea to pull them together and are managing a project that is running out of steam.
All this is very good for the Corbyn / McDonnell leadership of the Labour Party. The Tories have given them all the evidence they need to push their anti-austerity programme. When even someone as universally loathed as Iain Duncan Smith says they’re going too far you know that they are at the outer limits of what they can do. At the moment when Labour is starting to consolidate (to an extent), the Tories are eating each other alive and it’s wonderful to watch – even better than Ant and Dec on a Saturday night.