Esther McVey poses for pictures outside 10 Downing Street during the 2013 ministerial reshuffle. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Esther McVey flounders as bedroom tax failure becomes clear

Conservative minister says policy was "never all about saving money" but just six per cent of tenants have downsized.

After the publication of today's BBC study showing that the bedroom tax has resulted in just 6 per cent of affected tenants moving house, while pushing 28 per cent into rent arrears, it was left to Esther McVey to defend the government this morning. While failing to achieve the behavioural change they wanted (owing to the lack of smaller properties for tenants to move to), ministers boast that the measure is saving £1m a day (housing benefit is reduced by 14 per cent for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25 per cent for those with two or more). 

But when McVey, the Conservative employment minister, was asked on Radio 5 Live how much money the government had saved, she replied: "But it was never all about saving money...", a line of argument entirely at odds with that deployed by her department. 

McVey went on to explain that the policy was "about using the stock, the housing much better". But the problem is that the lack of one bedroom properties means there isn't enough housing to use "better". In England, for instance, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties available.

It's for this reason that the DWP now prefers to emphasise the money it expects the policy to save (while challenging Labour to say how it would pay for its reversal and also remain within the new welfare spending cap). Iain Duncan Smith said today: "It was absolutely necessary that we fixed the broken system which just a year ago allowed the taxpayer to cover the £1m daily cost of spare rooms in social housing."

While the policy is also costing money, by increasing homelessness and pushing some tenants into the private sector, where rents are higher (inflating the housing benefit bill), it seems likely that there is a net saving. But if, as McVey suggests, the policy isn't really about saving money, it's not clear what the point of it is at all. As long as the government fails to build the houses required, most tenants will simply be left to endure yet another welfare cut

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage