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.
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.