iain duncan smith Iain Duncan Smith. Photo: Wikipedia

After the worst week for the government so far, Alex Snowdon looks at the wider crisis of the Conservatives

I write this at the end of an awful week for the Tories: their worst week, by some distance, since they formed a majority government as a result of last May’s general election. 

It bears comparison to the ‘omnishambles’ budget of 2012, when a tax cut for the richest was widely contrasted with regressive changes for millions of ordinary people, leading to a drop in the Tories’ poll position that they didn’t reverse until autumn 2014. As on that occasion, chancellor George Osborne is at the heart of things.

The fall of Iain Duncan Smith

Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the cabinet was the stand-out development of the week and the biggest piece of fallout (so far) from a badly mis-judged budget. Of course he hasn’t suddenly discovered a conscience after nearly six years as a Work and Pensions Secretary making vicious cuts to social security.

But his resignation does reflect genuine tensions among the Tories over how far they can go in making cuts. Many cabinet ministers resent how far they are pushed by the Treasury to make cuts in their own departments, while nonetheless agreeing with the larger austerity project. This resignation came as a surprise, but it was perhaps just a matter of time before a cabinet minister stood down as a result of these tensions. 

One interpretation of the resignation is that Duncan Smith has entirely cynically, and cleverly, stood down so he can damage the ‘Remain’ campaign in the EU referendum. This is to credit him with too much control over events.

No: he is stumbling around, as are others, and (while the referendum is part of the backdrop) this is primarily about tensions over the cuts. Remember, too, that this is a party with only a tiny Commons majority, split deeply over the EU, operating a time when the popular legitimacy of austerity is falling.

The resignation’s impact has been amplified by the manner of Duncan Smith’s departure. He clearly wanted to inflict damage on Osborne as he made for the exit, with a resignation letter that was polite and flattering in places but quietly devastating in others. There are echoes of Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech which triggered the downfall of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1990. On that occasion it emerged that a ‘dead sheep’ could be savaging after all. It now seems a ‘quiet man’ can cause more damage than anyone had imagined.

The immediate trigger for the resignation was the cuts to disability benefits announced in the budget – or perhaps it was the widespread political and public backlash to them which swiftly followed. Less widely reported than Duncan Smith’s resignation, but also significant, was the revelation on Friday that the Treasury would not in fact proceed with these cuts.

U-turn in just 48 hours is remarkable, influenced no doubt by polling which suggested massive public opposition. It created an impression that the budget was swiftly unravelling, and made Osborne look weak and unable to impose his will. Another under-reported development this week was the House of Lords rejecting three major planks of the Tory Trade Union Bill  – a setback for the draconian anti-union attacks.

A wider crisis

Overall the budget has proved relatively unpopular. This isn’t simply due to the content of the budget itself. It is in large part due to the role of the official Opposition in putting across the kind of strong opposition unknown during the Miliband years. In particular it was significant that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell targeted the cuts affecting disabled people, making these cuts a central issue of contention.

This instance of excellent judgement by Corbyn and McDonnell is one reason why it has been a very good week for Labour – and particularly the Labour left – not merely a bad week for the Tories. Another reason is the series of three opinion polls - between 12 March and 17 March – which all showed Labour making gains of up to 4% (compared to the pollsters’ previous surveys) and the Tories dropping by up to 4%. One poll – by YouGov – even put Labour one point ahead of the Tories. While polls should be treated with caution, this is significant progress compared with the entire period since Corbyn’s election as leader last September.

It looks like three factors lie behind the Tories’ polling woes. One is the deep splits over the EU, with roughly half of Tory MPs on each side of the referendum debate. A divided party doesn’t look strong to voters.

Secondly, there’s the repeated recent warnings about the state of the economy. Osborne’s reputation for good economic management (hard to believe on the left, but this is a common public perception) has taken some serious knocks.

Finally, there is evidence that the public mood is shifting against cuts – a process that may prove to be accelerated by this week’s budget. Polling has found that on three separate measures - whether cuts are considered necessary, whether they’re good for the economy, and fairness – support has fallen over the last few months.

It’s getting worse for the Tories 

This is therefore serious for the Tories, and not some passing turbulence. As Jon Lansman, a leading light in Labour left grouping Momentum, puts it: ‘Three things are increasingly likely: Osborne’s dead in the water, Cameron’s next, and there’ll only be one leadership election this year.’

Corbyn was astute in responding to Duncan Smith’s resignation by calling for Osborne to go. Lansman’s last point, too, is crucial: there has been much excitable media chatter about (all too real) divisions inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, but the focus is now shifting to the splits among the Tories.

Osborne has long been regarded as the frontrunner to succeed Cameron as Tory leader. The Tory establishment is now panicking as it looks like their favourite son is extremely fallible. The speculation about when Cameron will go, who will stand for leader and who will subsequently win a leadership election all adds to the sense of the Tories as divided, squabbling and incoherent. This is tied up with the divisions over the EU referendum.

Polls on the EU referendum are volatile, but it does look genuinely possible that it will lead to Brexit. That would deepen the Tory crisis still further and it’s hard to see Cameron surviving it as party leader and prime minister.

More pessimistic elements of the left had predicted a ‘carnival of reaction’ in the run up to the 23 June referendum, fearing a debate entirely dominated by racist scapegoating. Instead we are getting an unravelling Tory party. The Tories will continue to be weak and divided for the next 3 months; after that, whatever the referendum outcome, the tensions will hardly be resolved.

The other stand-out element of the budget was the announcement of ‘forced academies’, with all schools expected to become academies in the next few years. I have already responded to this - Stop the Tory assault on our schools - and will merely add that it has triggered an almighty backlash. Two separate online petitions condemning the announcement have already reached 100,000 names, or are very close to doing so. NUT associations nationwide have called protests for this Wednesday.

Labour and the movements

All of this is a disaster for the Blairite vultures seeking to destabilise Corbyn’s leadership. The Tory crisis, Labour’s polling bounce, the fall in support for cuts, the anti-academies backlash – all this strengthens the left (around Corbyn and McDonnell) relative to the right inside the Labour Party. They are still hoping for poor Labour results in May’s elections, as an excuse to launch an attack on the leadership, but that is looking less and less likely.

Corbyn and McDonnell have, as noted, played an important part in the events of this week. Corbyn’s leadership victory was on the back of a popular upsurge and fuelled by protest movements. He continues to take strength from popular support way beyond the largely hostile PLP – from Labour members and from activists in the wider movements (as seen in the big turnouts for the recent JC4PM tour). Sustaining this momentum is crucial to exploit the weaknesses on the Tory side, and to further marginalise the Labour Right.

It is significant that party leaders have aligned themselves closely with the wider anti-Tory opposition: for example, Corbyn will speak at NUT Conference on Friday, while McDonnell has recently been pictured on junior doctors’ picket lines and addressing disabled anti-cuts protesters. The moderate shadow education secretary Lucy Powell will speak at Wednesday’s NUT rally in London.   

So, we are certainly not spectators to all this. Tens of thousands marched against Trident replacement just three weeks ago. This weekend there was another big turnout, this time for a ‘refugees welcome here’ demonstration. The junior doctors are already pledged to further strikes and there is talk of escalation. The People’s Assembly’s March for Health, Homes, Jobs and Education on 16 April is a focal point for anti-cuts campaigners.

Through mass mobilisations and solidarity with the junior doctors’ strikes – the most important union struggle for years - aligned with a combative, left-wing Labour leadership, we can drive the Tories deeper into crisis and raise the possibility of this government’s collapse.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).

Tagged under: