The Guardian view on the return of PMQs: a microcosm of what’s wrong
Try to imagine, just for a moment, that you are Iain Duncan Smith. Imagine too, if you can, that you are sitting in Mr Duncan Smith’s place on the Conservative backbenches during prime minister’s questions on Wednesday. When you were a minister, you were the author and midwife of universal credit, the coalition government’s “big idea” for rolling up six benefits into one monthly credit. The reform is your great legacy. Few changes in modern times are more umbilically associated with a single politician than this.
On Wednesday, as you sit in the first PMQs since the party conferences, universal credit is coming under sustained attack from Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader devotes all his questions to the issue. He tells Theresa May that some claimants are waiting more than six weeks for any payments and are being charged 55p a minute to call the helpline that is supposed to get things sorted. Mrs May tries to brush the Labour leader’s attacks away. Then one of your own Tory colleagues, Heidi Allen, sitting right behind you, adds to the pressure by echoing Mr Corbyn, saying the six-week delay just doesn’t work.
You yourself are keen to make your point. You try to catch the Speaker’s eye and, a few minutes later, he calls your name: “Mr Iain Duncan Smith.” Here is your chance. It is obvious what you are going to say. This is your issue. So you defend your universal credit system and you help your Tory prime minister. Don’t you?
Not if you are Mr Duncan Smith you don’t. The former Tory leader spoke. But he ignored both universal credit and Mrs May’s plight. Instead, he asked for an assurance that “all moneys necessary” would be spent on planning for the possibility of a “no deal” Brexit in 2019. Mrs May, who seemed to have been forewarned of his request, promptly gave Mr Duncan Smith everything that he wanted. She ended her answer: “Where money needs to be spent, it will be spent.”
As a microcosm of what is so destructive about the Tory party, its government, and the current state of British politics, this takes some beating. It was, first, a revealing choice of priorities, a reminder that hard Brexit ultimately matters more to MPs like Mr Duncan Smith than the needs of the poor. Second, it showed that Mrs May will find money to placate Brexiteers over their latest grievance but not for claimants with daily real-life needs. Third, it was spectacularly eloquent of the fact that, in her approach to Brexit, Mrs May puts keeping the Tory party together above doing what is in the best interests of the British economy and of people’s jobs.
It remains, perhaps, theoretically possible that Mrs May is engaged in an audacious long-term deception of
people like Mr Duncan Smith and that, at some point in the Brexit process, she will say that an exit in which the UK continues to deal with the customs union and the single market on broadly EU terms is the best and only deal she can recommend. But the chance of this kind of outcome was already vanishingly small, and just got a little bit smaller. Exchanges like the one with Mr Duncan Smith show that a much graver danger is that hardline Brexiteers are successfully pushing Mrs May towards the cliff edge. She continues to say she wants the negotiations with the EU to succeed. But Mr Duncan Smith and his allies simply do not.
Mrs May is not a Brexit fanatic, as they are. This was powerfully underscored this week when she refused to say which way she would vote if there was a second EU referendum. Her boilerplate explanation is that there will not be a second referendum so the question does not arise. But her honesty – in the sense that she refused to tell a lie by pretending that leaving the EU is better than staying would have been – reveals a massive truth. Mrs May sees her role in history as being to make the best of a bad job. Damian Green was even more frank about that this week. But Brexit remains a bad job, however well (or not) Mrs May and her ministers manage to navigate the consequences.
Iain Duncan Smith at prime minister’s questions. ‘The former Tory leader spoke. But he ignored both universal credit and Mrs May’s plight. Instead, he asked for an assurance that “all moneys necessary” would be spent on planning for the possibility of a “no deal” Brexit in 2019.’ Photograph: PA