Most followers of politics consider Geoffrey Howe’s resignation in 1990 – signalling as it did the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher’s premiership – to be the most devastating in British politics. Although the sudden, and barbed, resignation of Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has generated a weekend of bad headlines for the Government, there are several reasons to think it will lack the impact of Howe’s:
1) Wrong place
When Howe stuck the knife in his Prime Minister’s back, he did so in a personal statement delivered from the backbenches whilst Mrs Thatcher sat a few feet away at the despatch box. The Commons’ cameras not only captured every word of Howe’s scathing speech but also the expression on the Prime Minister’s face, her rather defensive body language and the evident delight of many Tory MPs. By contrast, IDS’s resignation came in the form of a rather lengthy letter and an interview on Andrew Marr two days later, neither of which provided an excruciating broadcast moment for the PM or the Chancellor.
2) Wrong time
The EU referendum debate is the issue dominating UK politics at the moment, effectively sucking the oxygen out of every other area of policy. If we accept IDS’s protestations that his resignation was about the changes to disability benefits contained in the budget – and that is a big if (see below) – then why did he resign after the Chancellor had already announced that the Government were withdrawing the controversial changes to PIP (the benefit in question)?
3) Wrong issue
When Howe resigned, he did so over an important (if esoteric) issue: Thatcher’s cavalier attitude to Cabinet Government (specifically over the European single currency). No one doubted his conviction or his case. IDS, by contrast, seems to have resigned over a policy that was already being scrapped and, in doing so, has effectively attacked the welfare reforms that are his own political legacy. Right-of-centre critics of the former Work and Pensions Secretary have pointed out that, whilst his resignation letter acknowledges the need for spending cuts, it seems to oppose their imposition on his own department – a position dismissed as “fiscal nimbyism” by Matthew D’Ancona. Similarly, those on the left have poked fun at Duncan Smith’s rather late conversion to opposing welfare cuts. (Or, as Michael White put it in The Guardian: “He must be kidding, right?”). This cognitive dissonance is partly why so many are questioning his motives.
4) Wrong target
Whereas Howe attacked the Prime Minister of the day directly, IDS instead chose to target the Chancellor, George Osborne. The two men have form – IDS was rumoured to be furious by revelations – published in Matthew D’Ancona’s book In It Together in 2013– that Osborne had described IDS as “just not clever enough” to run DWP. Little wonder, then, that Andrew Marr was forced to ask IDS: “I put it to you that you don’t like George Osborne, he doesn’t like you, and this has been going on for years and years.”
5) Wrong effect
Whilst this row has undoubtedly further damaged the Chancellor, it has left the PM comparatively unscathed. Nor is the PM so concerned by this resignation or its possible repercussions that he felt moved to offer a symbolic concession to his party’s Eurosceptic right. Rather than appointing one of IDS’ fellow Brexiteers – such as Employment Minister Priti Patel – as the new Secretary of State, he appointed one of those ministers backing Remain, Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb. (The day after the budget a centre right blog – CapX – had tipped Crabb as a potential future Tory leader, and one much more in the mould of Cameron rather than IDS)
6) Wrong analogy
The most memorable line of Howe’s resignation was as follows: “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.” There can be very few times when the history of a nation, or the fate of a Prime Minister, has hinged on a weaponised cricketing analogy. There is no comparable metaphorical dagger in IDS’s resignation letter. If only IDS had spent a little more time crafting his resignation and found the sporting mot juste – probably a reference to the Eton Wall Game would have worked best – then perhaps it might have earned its place in the pantheon of killer resignations.