One of the brewing Tory rows of the autumn looks to be over Universal Credit, with Heidi Allen now claiming she has 25 Conservatives prepared to rebel on the matter. They are worried about a number of aspects of the fiendishly complicated reform which is supposed to make the benefit system less, er, fiendishly complicated. Chief among their worries is the six weeks that claimants have to wait for their benefits, which is a long period in itself, but almost a quarter of claimants have had to wait even longer than that to receive their money, leaving many of them unable to buy food.
Ministers had been reasonably relaxed about Allen’s letter calling for a pause in the roll-out of the new benefit, mainly because they didn’t see Allen as a particularly serious Conservative (many Tories wonder aloud whether she is a Conservative at all, which may be unfair but it is the consequence of her expending so much political capital early on in her tenure as an MP to the extent that she is now considered a maverick rebel rather than someone who ministers need to worry about getting on side). Some Conservative MPs claim not to have seen her letter published in the Telegraph before their party conference, and have been distancing themselves from it to other colleagues. Of course, even not particularly serious Conservatives can make things pretty darn serious in a minority government.
It would be wrong for ministers to relax about the level of Conservative concern about this reform. It dominated today’s Work and Pensions questions in the Commons, with David Gauke having to defend the government’s determination to continue with the roll-out to backbenchers from his own party. It wasn’t just semi-independent centrist MPs like Allen who were expressing concerns, or even her colleague Stephen McPartland who has been similarly sceptical of some of the detail of benefit reforms in the past. It was also Conservative MPs like Philip Hollobone who got up to ask about problems with delayed payments.
Gauke insisted that the latest figures showed an improvement in the time taken to pay claimants, and that MPs must be wary of scaring constituents who were being moved onto the benefit. He also called on his colleagues to do a better job in publicising the availability of advance payments for those who have no savings and are left unable to buy groceries or pay their bills while waiting for the benefit. But he argued that the government was proceeding with the roll-out at such a slow pace that it was able to learn from its experience. The question is whether it is prepared to learn from some of the concerns that MPs who aren’t the usual suspects on benefit reforms.
If ministers don’t listen, what could happen? Universal Credit was set out in the Welfare Reform Act 2012, and so backbenchers cannot derail the policy through a Commons vote on legislation as that vote took place a long time ago. Though this bill did cause a fair bit of hoo-ha in Parliament as it went through its scrutiny stages, MPs were reasonably easily bought off with the argument that this was too important a reform to a benefits system which punished people for going back into work or taking on more hours. Now that they’re seeing it appearing in their constituency surgeries in the form of a distressed claimant, those MPs and the ones who have joined them in the two ensuing general elections don’t seem quite so easily bought off. Indeed, Stephen McPartland complained about the taper rate for the benefit, which he argued represented a still very punitive 63 per cent tax rate. The question is how can they mount a rebellion against something which is already happening? Labour can force the issue through an Opposition Day debate, which would involve Tory MPs rebelling against the whipped abstention to vote with the Opposition. There are limited slots for these debates, so Labour would need to table a motion that Tory and DUP rebels would back.
Other MPs worried about the reform think that holding the Finance Bill to ransom by threatening to vote against it unless there are concessions would be a better option as it would genuinely scare ministers and avoid making the issue one that Jeremy Corbyn could use for his own ends. Keeping Corbyn out of a rebellion is a really important factor in encouraging more Tories than the usual suspects to join in. If the rebels are canny and understand their parliamentary procedure, then they could cause real trouble on Universal Credit. If not, the threatened rebellion could mean nothing more than a non-binding vote on a Wednesday afternoon which is easily ignored.