Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Byrne fought over the bill’s details but only Caroline Lucas and David Miliband landed blows
It was the great welfare debate, shirkers v strivers, Iain Duncan Smith against Liam Byrne. If the Falklands War was two bald men fighting over a comb, this was two bald men fighting over a fine-tooth comb, which they were tugging across each other’s scalps, picking up nits.
The gist of their arguments was: “It’s all your fault”. The Tories blamed Labour for leaving the deficit. Labour blamed the Tories for ignoring growth. Everything else was nitpicking, an attempt to select any statistics that might be dragged into support.
Duncan Smith, in particular, is obsessed by detail. He is awash with statistics. He was like a friend who knows far too much about his chosen topic so you avoid raising it. If you ask a train-spotter how his journey was, by the time he’s told you that he travelled on an EMU, Class 377 Electrostar of Capital Connect, adding that it was in a three-car rather than a four-car configuration, you would tear your head off in boredom.
Now and again he would tuck his scalp down and lean forward, as if an ostrich egg had weirdly turned up in a rugby scrum. He spoke fast, swallowing words, in a desperate attempt to get more facts and numbers out. Now and again his voice rose excitably. “Unemployment is FALLING!” he yelled. “More women are in work than ever before!” he almost screeched. Freddie the Frog, which lodged in his throat while he was Tory leader, is back, so that the latest exciting figures would be interrupted by an unintended cry of “gak!”
Ed Balls was sledging him. The shadow chancellor kept raising a single finger, perhaps to imply that unemployment was increasing, possibly with more vulgar intent. At one point, while IDS was criticising Gordon Brown, Balls said something I didn’t catch. IDS affected astonishment. “He no longer wants the ex-prime minister as his friend! A denier of a friend is a pretty cheap person, I must say!”
A cheap person! That’s what we need. Our people are simply too expensive. Cheap people mean lower benefits!
Now and again someone would cut through the thicket of figures. Caroline Lucas, the only Green MP, called the bill “a mean and miserable piece of legislation from a mean and miserable government”.
Labour’s Liam Byrne had a few questions to answer, so he didn’t answer them. Labour loves the Tory reduction of the top income-tax rate, entirely ignoring the fact that it was at just 40% for 12 and a half out of their 13 years.
Instead he insisted that the rich were now all £2,000 a week better off, “to heat their swimming pools!” He was as obsessed with hot swimming pools as IDS was with statistics. Golly, the rich are so rich they can heat their swimming pools to the temperature of volcanic calderas!
And, he added, the bill failed “the Ronseal test – it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.” How David Cameron is going to regret that phrase.
The best speech might have come from David Miliband, who was terse and to the point. The bill was “rancid”, he said. You could see Labour MPs thinking, “maybe we should have voted for him instead. Hang on, actually, we did!”