A degree of cynicism about yourself and your own self importance is a very healthy thing. So is a lot of questioning and doubts about the orthodoxy of the party you have chosen to belong to. For example, the Green Party, which I belong to, is committed to establishing a citizens' income. I think there is a real risk that it would prove every bit as crude and inoperable in practice as Iain Duncan Smith's Universal Credit. Efforts to simplify the benefit system often have very unpleasant impacts in practice. Means testing and complexity are there for a reason. The world is complex and generally speaking it is a very good idea to look carefully at what means of support someone has if you want to target help to the most needy. I don't fancy paying a citizens income to the son of a multi- millionaire living in the family mansion and denying enough to a single mother at risk of living on the streets of London.
When it comes to understanding the complexities of the benefits system I suspect Iain Duncan Smith might be able to teach us all quite a lot about starting out believing it is all very simple and needs a radical overhaul by someone with vision. The key question of the past week is can he also teach us anything about honesty in politics?
Let's start with the most charitable and logical theory. Assume that he believes everything he said on the Andrew Marr show and in his letter to David Cameron. He said clearly and powerfully that the government has made the wrong ideological choice about imposing austerity, that we aren't all in it together and that you can't target tax cuts at the rich in budget after budget at the same time as trying to take money away from people who happen to have a serious disability at this point in time. He added that it is narrow minded ideological obsession to refuse to undertake investment and that policies are imposing severe burdens on young people of working age.
To me that sounds like a pretty reasonable summary of the key mistakes of current government policy. So why not believe him when he says that he has been battling against these ideas quietly from the inside for ages and the pressures of defending the indefensible have just become too much?
The alternative theory also has a lot going for it. There does seem to be a distinct possibility that this is more about the career and the self interest of IDS than it is about his searing long term commitment to shifting the burden of cuts from the poor to the rich. His possible motives include:
1. Resigning over this issue made it virtually impossible for Osborne to become the next Prime Minister. It is just remotely possible that jealousy and rivalry might have been a more powerful motivation than concern for the welfare of the poor.
2. He was pressured by the Treasury for weeks to find more cuts and warned the Treasury they would be hugely unpopular but was ignored. As soon as they were announced it became clear just how unpopular they really were. Instead of saying sorry to IDS and rallying to his defence there was an immediate effort to put all the blame for those cuts onto him and to brief against him. When this happened it was clear that he was viewed as expendable. He could either sit around and wait to be sacked and carry all the reputational blame or he could fight back. It is just remotely possible that this was about thwarted career not principle.
3. IDS is a keen supporter of exit. There are a lot of poor people who vote and their votes on exit are very hard to predict. If a major exit campaigner is cutting their benefits it doesn't help the cause. If that major campaigner can magically transform himself into a champion of the poor then it has got to be good for switching a few votes. It has also got to be good for the career of that champion if Brexit wins. If his side wins the referendum he is highly likely to be back and in a powerful position. If they lose he was out on his ear anyway. It is just remotely possible that quitting now was the best way of promoting his own self interest.
4. The Conservative junior Ministers who worked with IDS have been queuing up to scratch their heads in public and say that he never showed any signs of this new found commitment to the poor in private. It is very hard to read Ross Altmann's description of his bullying behaviour and still believe that IDS is primarily driven by his deep commitment to social justice. It is just remotely possible that those who worked closely with him knew him quite well.
Whatever the truth of it the resignation raises serious questions about Cameron's method of governing. If you believe IDS was making sincere and heartfelt criticism then someone who has been right at the heart of the Conservative Party has been forced to the inescapable conclusion that it has formed a narrowly ideological government that is protecting the rich whilst harming the poor and is obsessed by a flawed vision of how to escape from austerity. If you think he is a cynical self serving politician then Cameron has been employing a deeply unpleasant character to do his dirty work for a very long time.
Either way the Conservative Party is now in trouble. There are another three months of campaigning to go before we get to the vote on Brexit. As the referendum approaches the divisions are not going to weaken - they are going to get sharper and more difficult. The divide in the Conservative Party over Europe is one of fundamental ideological difference. One wing of the party wants what is in the best interests of British industry and commerce - which is unquestionably to stay inside the biggest trading network and not take silly risks with our major market. The other side thinks we can't possibly be great again without getting out and getting the nation free from all those pesky regulations about workers rights, women's rights and the environment and closing the door on nasty foreigners.
These are not views of the world that can be reconciled. The divisions in the Conservative Party are not ones that can be healed easily the day after the referendum vote. It is hard to see who could step forward and unite that party after three months more of vicious infighting. It is not hard to see how it could split. If a significant number of members of the Conservative Party sincerely believe that they have the right answers to our country's problems and the other side of the party is dangerously wrong then there is more reason to expect a split than business as usual. We are in for some interesting times!