Isabel Hardman

Tory MPs are changing their minds on Universal Credit

Tory MPs are changing their minds on Universal Credit
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Tory MPs will not get the chance to force the government into a U-turn on scrapping the £20-a-week Universal Credit uplift this afternoon after the Speaker didn't select their rebel amendment. Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Damian Green had tabled the motion refusing to give a second reading to the bill on the basis that the money saved by breaking the pensions triple lock should have been diverted towards keeping the uplift.

The motion would not have reinstated the uplift, but would have blocked the legislation process enabling the government to suspend the triple lock so that the state pension rises in line with inflation or 2.5 per cent, rather than wages. This was an attempt to hold legislation to ransom, which speakers do not like. But it would be wrong for ministers to think that the decision not to select the amendment means that the trouble on this policy is going away.

Duncan Smith's argument is that the level of Universal Credit has been too low for too long. He believed this when he resigned as Work and Pensions Secretary back in 2016. A lot of his colleagues on the backbenches publicly agree with him now, and a number on the frontbench also privately agree. Ministers have given up fighting the Treasury on the matter, accepting that they took their stand on the uplift earlier in the year but ultimately lost. But backbench MPs are worried about the reaction in their own constituencies as the cut coincides with a rise in the cost of living.

What will happen now is that the focus on the Tory benches moves from the £20 uplift specifically and onto other ways of trying to prevent severe hardship when that uplift ends later this month. When MPs debated this matter last week, it was striking how many Conservatives were prepared to argue that benefits should be more generous, even if they accepted that the uplift was definitely going. Former Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb was the bluntest, saying:

One reason that in-work poverty increased in the years leading up to the pandemic was, I am afraid, directly related to the fact that we had frozen the main rate of working age benefits that supported families on low incomes. If we look at the data and the evidence, that conclusion is unavoidable. Anyone who thinks that we have generous benefits in this country is wrong.

Crabb argued that MPs would ‘keep coming back to talk about this issue for the remainder of this Parliament’, even though No. 10 and the Treasury had decided to move on. Conservative MPs have shown little appetite for the way Labour is approaching this issue, but they are also not prepared to help No. 10 out by shutting up about it either. Keep an eye out for the next attempt by backbenchers to encourage a more generous approach to benefits: it's not far off.