Great Britain

The universal credit row is symbolic of wider dissatisfaction with Boris Johnson’s government

T

o use the words on the order paper, the House of Commons officially “believes that the government should stop the planned cut in universal credit and working tax credit in April and give certainty today to the 6 million families for whom it is worth an extra £1,000 a year”.

Despite the overwhelming vote and the constitutional convention that the Commons (or at least parliament) is sovereign, this expression of “belief” will make no immediate difference. It is an Opposition Day debate, under a longstanding arrangement providing for proper scrutiny of the executive, but it has the same status as any other vote on a motion. There is a string case that it should alter government policy, even though the vote creates no new laws.

Politically, though, it is highly significant. The government whips instructed Tory MPs to abstain, in an attempt to make the exercise seem more irrelevant than it is, and, moreover, because there was a risk the government would lose the vote. Despite the effort, there was a Tory rebellion, including new Tory MPs who captured so-called Red Wall seats from Labour in 2019, plus some former ministers. Once again it is proof that a notional working majority of more than 80 is no defence against defeat in a party addicted to conspiracy, factionalism and revolt. Boris Johnson only escaped another humiliation (of parliamentary defeat or an emergency U-turn) by offering his own dissidents some rubbery commitments to review things at the next Budget. There are suggestions that the Treasury is ready to “buy out” the £20 a week temporary uplift to social security with a one-off final payment of £500 or even £1,000.  

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