Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Brexit
11 October 2018updated 03 Sep 2021 12:11pm

Universal Credit will be just as big a nightmare for the Conservatives as Brexit

As Esther McVey admits families will be worse off, Tory MPs are making their discontent known.

By Patrick Maguire

Conservative MPs often complain that their government is incapacitated by Brexit, but what little else ministers are doing is causing consternation too.

The latest running sore for the government is the botched roll-out of Universal Credit and the equally maladroit way in which Esther McVey, the divisive Work and Pensions Secretary, has handled revelations that it will leave low income families up to £200 a week worse off.

Downing Street has insisted that nobody who switches to the new benefit will lose money. McVey, however, did not follow that line in a BBC interview this afternoon. She instead took the bold step of attempting to spin the situation as a virtue: “We made tough decisions. Some people will be worse off.” End of austerity it isn’t.

It got an angry response from backbencher Johnny Mercer, the MP for Plymouth, Moor View, who is occasionally written up as a future leadership contender. In a since deleted tweet, he wrote: “Ester’s in a tough spot here [sic]. It’s not her fault; Universal Credit was designed so that no-one would be worse off. Stop the tax-free allowance rise and re-invest into UC, or I can’t support it. Not politically deliverable in Plymouth I’m afraid.”

To put it bluntly, it is unlikely anyone is going to lose much sleep over alienating Mercer specifically. His colleagues play down the significance of his punchy intervention. One suggests he is separated from most Tory MPs by several degrees of stridency and is speaking only for himself. Another reflects dryly: “These angry noises don’t get him anywhere but the press.” But he is not alone in calling for more money for claimants.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday - from the New Statesman. Sign up directly at The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. Sign up directly at Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

What none deny, however, is that there is growing discontent on the Conservative benches over Universal Credit, which is generating no end of horror stories as it rolls out in more and more of their constituencies. Words like Mercer’s – whose tweets on the subject have been approvingly shared by at least one other Tory MP this afternoon – are not great mood music for a minority government, not least ahead of a budget whose passage already looks precarious thanks to the DUP and ERG. (It’s also remembering that the unionists are well to the left of the Conservatives on welfare, which can only empower future rebels.)

John Major likened Universal Credit to the poll tax this morning, and with good reason. MPs in marginals like Mercer’s complain it is a boon for Labour, who have already turned McVey’s BBC interview into a viral clip. Not everyone is quite as indignant as him. But as one government source puts it, this political headache could yet become a migraine for ministers struggling to square the prime minister’s sunny rhetoric on public spending with an altogether grimmer reality.

Content from our partners
Resolving the crisis in children’s dentistry
Planetary perspectives: how data can transform disaster response and preparation
How measurement can help turn businesses’ sustainability goals into action