A Government with a working majority of only 17 needs to listen very carefully to its backbenchers – people like me who have no ‘fear nor favour’, and who are therefore ready and willing to speak out, and if necessary on occasion, to rebel against their own Party. I did so (successfully) last week on extended shop opening hours on a Sunday, and led by the ex-Secretary of State, Iain Duncan-Smith, I would very probably have done so on the changes to the Personal Independence Payment proposed in Mr Osborne’s Budget.
The changes proposed to PiP were pretty technical - reducing the points allocated for equipment which some disabled people might need, on the grounds that those who truly need these things already have them. It would have saved £1.5 Billion, which will now have to be found from elsewhere; and I broadly support the agenda which seeks to redirect benefits payments to those who truly need them. The safety net must be safe and secure, yet permitting those who are wilfully abusing the system to fall through it. Yet I am ready to accept from that arch-Thatcherite Iain Duncan-Smith that salami-slicing of the benefits bill over recent years has now gone far enough. He knows what he is talking about.
The rest of the Budget had some pretty good things – the reduction in Corporation Tax will enable businesses to perform better, to the benefit of their employees. An end to National Insurance for self-employed people will be widely welcomed in an area like this, as will help with business rates. Fair funding for schools will help greatly in Wiltshire. I am less happy about the tax on sugary drinks – I am by no means convinced that tax changes like this are the best way to change human behaviour, and anyhow it smacks of the nanny state. And my Brexit instincts have been more than strengthened by the sight of the Prime Minister in Brussels begging for the right to zero-rate VAT on tampons. Surely that is exactly the sort of thing which should be decided here in Westminster, and not by 28 countries across Europe. The sooner we get out the better it will be.
It is many years since a Cabinet Minister resigned purely on a point of principle – Michael Heseltine over helicopters and Lord Carrington over the Falklands in 1982 spring to mind. So IDS’s resignation seems to me to be highly honourable, and much to be admired. Government should be about trying to do the best for the largest number of people, always safeguarding the less fortunate in life; and when a Minister believes that his own Government may not be doing so, it is right and proper that he should resign over it.
The Budget, shop opening hours, the PiP fiasco, the tampon tax and IDS’s resignation over it all should be a good reminder to the PM and Chancellor that they are but Primus inter Pares, and that they need the support of the Parliamentary Party for their proposals. That realisation may not be good for Mr Osborne’s leadership ambitions; but it is very good for Parliament and very good for Democracy.