Amber Rudd had a difficult return to the frontbench in her first set of ministerial questions since being appointed as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Strikingly, both for someone regularly tipped as a possible leadership contender, and as the latest occupant of an increasingly tricky brief, there was no “donut” – a ring of supportive MPs sitting around her for moral support and to make the pictures look better on telly – behind her. And although most of the questions opened by welcoming her return to frontline politics, there were very few that could genuinely be described as properly sympathetic. Huw Merriman, Mike Penning, David Morris and Rachel Maclean all chipped in with supportive questions but even on the government side many of the questions were tricky ones.
Desmond Swayne, the New Forest West MP who, Brexit aside, is normally a government loyalist, asked about the case of a woman left severely disabled due to variant-CJD, a rare and fatal brain disorder, who is now facing both a work capability assessment and cuts to her benefits that will mean that she could lose her home. Chris Philp, the Croydon South MP and ultra-loyalist, had a detailed and tricky question about the implementation of the Universal Credit.
And the opposition parties were out in force – to a degree that you could almost have thought, looking at their benches, that it was Prime Minister’s Questions – with questions that were often detailed and uniformly critical.
Before the event, there was some talk of a “change of tone” or even a policy shift. Instead, what was offered was the same position with a different accent. Rudd’s response to a damning UN report into poverty in the UK – an angry condemnation of its “political” language – could have been said, word for word, by Esther McVey.
But while the government’s position hasn’t shifted yet, it should worry Rudd – and the government as a whole – that the list of MPs who are willing to defend Universal Credit in its current form continues to be so small and so narrow.