Universal Credit destabilised Cameron. Will it do the same for May?

Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey told the cabinet that families will be £200 a month worse off after the roll-out.


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Is austerity ending? That’s the message that Theresa May delivered in her conference speech and again in an article for the Observer yesterday.

The choice of publication triggered a row of intra-left beef: the Observer is among the publications the Labour leadership regard with suspicion and irritation due to what they see as their excessive and partisan coverage of the People’s Vote campaign.

But from the government’s perspective, the bigger story this weekend came courtesy of Sam Coates in the Times: that Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey has told the cabinet that millions of families will be £200 a month worse off under the Universal Credit roll-out. (Though, as Frank Field points out today, any MP who attends constituency surgeries will be aware of that.)

The big Labour news out of this weekend is that John McDonnell used his interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge to break Labour out of their “we don’t like it, we haven’t pledged any money to fix it – we’ll review it” position on Universal Credit to blanket opposition. There are still big, big question marks about what Labour would do instead and how they’d pay for it within McDonnell’s fiscal rule, but it puts the opposition in a position where, should Universal Credit become a running sore for the government, they have a clear dividing line.

It’s worth remembering that the bulk of the coming cuts to Universal Credit are the same tax credit cuts that so destabilised David Cameron and George Osborne – and that was merely the promise, rather than the reality, of cuts to in-work-benefits.

Cameron and Osborne at least had a rhetorical shield for all the good it did them: that the cuts were necessary and that we all needed to make sacrifices to get Britain in the black. Now those cuts are back at the same time the Prime Minister is running around the country telling anyone who will listen that austerity is ending.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.