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LONDON — Summer’s barely over and MPs who promised to be on their best behavior are already being tested.
Since the start of the pandemic, and despite a large majority in the House of Commons, Downing Street has grappled with governing not only the country but its own 363-strong Conservative members of parliament. Rebellions have flared over welfare funding, support for children entitled to free school meals, relations with China and COVID restrictions.
The received wisdom in SW1 is that these upsets have been fueled by difficulties trying to impose discipline remotely during the pandemic, and by the sheer size and diversity of the current Conservative Party.
With MPs returning to the Commons in full for the first time since April last year, whips — MPs charged with enforcing discipline among their own ranks — are hoping to see a more united group behind the prime minister.
However, that will be strained by two big policy fights that opened up in the first week back.
MPs will vote Tuesday on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s manifesto-busting plan to raise tax in order to pay for health and social care. While the government easily won the first vote on the issue last week, the legislation to enact it could face a rougher ride. Many MPs are deeply unhappy about the move, not helped by a YouGov poll for the Times at the weekend which showed the Conservatives’ support at the lowest level since the 2019 election.
“I’ll back it, but it’s shit,” said a member elected in 2019. “I’m not necessarily against increasing national insurance but it’s the fact that there’s absolutely no plan as to what any of the money’s going to be spent on.”
Added to that, disquiet among Conservatives about the forthcoming move to end a higher rate — or “uplift” — of Universal Credit, the government’s flagship welfare payment system, has rumbled in the background since the beginning of the year.
At their heart, both rows come down to how the party defines itself, with the push for a tighter rein on social security a source of worry to many so-called “blue-collar” Conservatives and the national insurance hike of concern to all who campaigned at the last election on a promise not to raise taxes.
One former whip said it was noticeable that Tory MPs were sticking to their own cliques even after the return to parliament — with newer MPs rarely speaking to the old guard — and that the party could do with an “away day.”
The government is expected to weather both storms this week, but they are bound to store up longer-term headaches for Johnson.
Eyes on the next election
In January, six Tory MPs broke ranks to back a Labour motion calling for the uplift to be extended. Six former work and pensions secretaries wrote to the chancellor in July to make the same appeal, as did the Northern Research Group of MPs.
The argument sharpened last week as the Financial Times reported that the government’s own modeling shows that withdrawing the boost to Universal Credit could have “catastrophic” consequences.
Stephen Crabb, former work and pensions secretary, summed up his concerns to POLITICO: “There are very few people around now who in private don’t accept that the UC cut isn’t going to cause real problems for families. The government is going to find itself dragged back to this decision whenever it wants to speak about reducing hardship or improving social mobility.”
On Monday, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey underlined the government’s position. “It’s a temporary uplift, recognizing the reason that it was introduced is coming to an end,” she told BBC Breakfast, stressing the need to “accelerate our plan for jobs.”
Even as she defended the move she sparked a new controversy, saying that claimants would only have to work an extra two hours to make up for the end of the £20-a-week uplift. The Labour Party said this was wrong, and the taper rate of the benefit means someone would have to work an extra 10 hours.
What may save the government is the fact there is nothing substantive to rebel on. The change to Universal Credit was enacted through a time-limited regulation that will expire without a vote in the Commons. Another Labour-led debate on the topic is due next week, but MPs do not expect that many Conservatives will put their head above the parapet this time.
A Tory MP who’s previously criticized the government’s welfare stance said there had been a shift in mood. “Colleagues have come back from the summer wanting to be supportive. These are difficult issues that we’re all trying to grapple with and generally we want to be helpful to the boss.”
Any revolt over welfare seemed doomed, he added, as the government was “rock solid” and its mindset had “hardened” over the summer. Several MPs said this was down to Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s determination to get a tighter grip on public finances, with the boost to welfare spending costing £6 billion a year, but also a deeper skepticism about the role of welfare.
A senior Conservative MP said: “I think he genuinely thinks that social security is rubbish — that it doesn’t solve poverty, which we know, and acts as a barrier to virtuous conservative behaviors and he’s really serious about the whole ‘work not welfare’ message, which he wants to be able to use in future election campaigns.”
A minister put it more diplomatically: “He’s laying the foundations inevitably for what the economy will look like and what we’ll be able to say in the next election, simply because this stuff takes a while to filter through. We need to be able to showcase fiscal responsibility, growth and jobs at the next election, otherwise what’s the point of being the Tory Party?”
And while much has been written about the support for more welfare spending among red wall Conservatives, they are not a homogeneous group. Some who belong to the “Common Sense” caucus in parliament fully support the end of the £20 uplift, or would like to see Universal Credit cut back further.
Instead of trying to change the chancellor’s mind, MPs who are unhappy about the end of the uplift are expected to focus their efforts on making the case for tweaks such as altering the taper rate or providing extra support to claimants with children.
The message that MPs have heard repeatedly from the Treasury is that it must have the ability to introduce temporary measures associated with the pandemic, and be able to provide examples of following through on their repeal.
The chancellor may get his way on Universal Credit, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that he and the prime minister are sailing off into a golden age of Tory cohesion.
Among experienced and junior MPs alike there is an unease that they are not following through on the message of low taxes and leveling up which carried them to victory in 2019. If that feeling is allowed to fester, the threat of an imminent reshuffle will not be enough to keep everyone in line.