8 Nov 2011

IDS seizes the Europe issue again

The Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith has taken a big personal decision which could have far-reaching consequences for him personally, for the coalition, and perhaps for Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

After IDS lost the Conservative leadership in 2003, he reinvented himself very radically as a politician, and in a very unusual manner. From then on, he decided – rather like William Wilberforce with the question of slavery 200 years ago – he would concentrate on one big issue – in IDS’s case, welfare. This would take up all his energy, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Duncan-Smith’s experiences as Tory leader visiting Glasgow council estates had truly shocked him as to the horrific extent of welfare dependency in many of our inner cities. He set up a think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, which developed many of the policies which IDS is now pursuing as welfare secretary in government.

Focusing on one big issue, of course, meant that IDS’s voice would no longer be heard on Europe, the issue on which IDS made his name as a backbencher, as one of the ring-leaders of the Maastricht rebels during the Major government. But by 2003 IDS had also himself taken the view as leader that stressing Europe was not doing his party any good with the electorate.

Now, IDS has suddenly returned to the European issue in a big way. He perceives that the public mood has changed. And it’s too important to leave to like-minded ministerial colleagues, IDS believes. What’s more, the issue of benefit tourism from the EU gives him a departmental excuse.

Hence his meeting with David Cameron on Monday evening to discuss the future of the UK and the EU, at which IDS and his friend and colleague, the Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, urged the PM that it was time to be much tougher.

The turning-point for IDS, I understand, was last month’s resignation as defence secretary of Liam Fox, the other big right-wing hitter in the Cabinet. Until then IDS could rely on Fox to defend the arch-eurosceptic line within the higher reaches of government. With Fox gone, there was now a risk that the arguments wouldn’t be made forcefully within Cabinet.

Almost as important as the Fox resignation in prompting IDS’s move, was David Cameron’s decision not to replace like with like. Many on the Conservative right were deeply disappointed that the prime minister didn’t appoint another right-wing eurosceptic to the Cabinet in place of Liam Fox, such as Chris Grayling or David Davis. Justine Greening shares her party’s broad euroscepticism, but far from militantly so.

With IDS back on the European warpath, the political dynamics of this issue could change radically. For eight years IDS was quietly pursuing his own hobbyhorse of welfare reform, causing trouble for neither of his successors. Now he’s back at the centre of events, pursuing the issue on which he originally made his name. The consequences could be explosive.

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