Let me declare an interest, I am a Liberal, born into a Liberal family in a part of the world where Liberalism is the natural opposition to conservatism.
Steve Webb is from that part of the world, his constituency 40 miles north of where I grew up in North Dorset. I would like him – wouldn’t I?
I remember the moment when it became possible that Webb might see power, it was when Nigel Waterson lost his seat narrowly (to a Liberal as it happened). The days following the general election saw Clegg as powerbroker. Had the Liberals joined labour to form a coalition, my political prejudices would have been satisfied but I doubted then and now that Webb would have been pension minister.
It was only because of the absence of expertise on the Conservative benches (Willetts excluded), that Webb could take the job. That and the fact that IDS is a charming collaborative man who could tolerate collaboration.
Speaking privately with Nigel Waterson, I got the impression that he is full of admiration for Webb. Graciously he has pursued an alternative roles as Chairman of NOW pensions.
Within pension circles, Webb is pretty well liked; other than the IFA boo-boys who troll their websites, there is an acceptance that this articulate, funny, balanced and decisive minister has got most things right and those things that he has got wrong- he has got wrong in a good way.
He’s had cock-ups, the false starts over the charge cap, the silly deferred annuity scheme he dreamt up with Alan Rubenstein and some naive attempts to take on the annuity industry prior to the budget. Clearly there are some things that the junior partner in a coalation (both in terms of party and department) can be excluded from. The Government Actuary knew about tax reforms before the Pension Minister and that doesn’t go down well with pension people.
But in all these things, Webb did not throw his toys out of the pram. The charge cap will be in place (as will be most of the pension reforms for workplace pensions) by next April. The ill-advised excursions into product design are morphing into strange synthetic products that may mutate into something useful , and his comments about annuities at least keep live the debate about whether anyone who bought an annuity in the years of QE was well advised. If there is a compensation bill- will it be HM Treasury that foots it?
But the Webb legacy will be felt most in his work on the State Pension which will be simpler, fairer and better understood from 2016. Thanks to the triple lock, it will be bigger than it might have been but it remains “basic” and will continue to be for “old age” despite losing those badges. The options for women to catch up on contributions and the greater fairness to future generations for women are what make Webb’s work especially valuable.
I am hugely impressed by the way that Webb has handled himself since the Budget. As mentioned before, he did not throw his toys from the pram when the announcement was made. He did what any clever politician would do, and grabbed the initiative. Whether the Lamborghini was a deliberate distraction or a slip, Webb has made it his icon and in a strange way stolen a part of the Treasury’s thunder.
The Lamborghini and the meticulous work on the single state pension show that Webb is both a populist and a pensions teccie.
I was speaking to a payroll geek the other day and discussing the new auto-enrolment contribution bands. “I bet you wish your views were heard by the politicians” I joked. “They are”, replied my friend, “Steve Webb had lunch with us last week”.
For anyone who thinks Steve Webb a headline grabber, they should remember the unglamorous work he has put in on making auto-enrolment work for payroll. The Friends of Auto-Enrolment will testify to that.
His fellow Liberals have been slow to acknowledge him and I sense he doesn’t care too much. He is a great ambassador for the Liberal Party and if they had a little more sense, they hold Webb up for what he is- their greatest success of the parliament.
But Webb is rather less the party politician and more the pension statesman. In his dedication to the single cause of improving the lot of our elderly population, Webb has broken new ground. While Ministers for education, justice and many other departments continue to come and go, Webb has turned the pension brief from a shortcut to the Treasury to a personal fiefdom.
As Pension Minister, Webb seems neither a collaborator with Conservatives nor a scourge of the opposition, he seems what he is – a Pension Patriarch.
I think that Webb’s style of politics which involves an immersion in his department’s affairs, is hard to emulate. It requires all of Webb’s personal, intellectual and political skills to carry off.
But for politicians looking to rise above the mire and get the respect of those who are professionally impacted by their work, Webb should be a role-model.
I am a Liberal, I have not had much to cheer about these last five years, but I have had Steve Webb. Frankly that has been enough.