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LONDON – Summer is 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 struggled to rule not only the country but also its own 363-member Tory MPs. Rebellions have erupted over funding for social assistance, support for children entitled to free school meals, relations with China, and COVID restrictions.
The wisdom received in SW1 is that these upheavals have been fueled by difficulties in trying to impose discipline at a distance during the pandemic, and by the size and diversity of the current Conservative Party.
With the full return of MPs to the Commons for the first time since April last year, the whips – MPs charged with enforcing discipline within their own ranks – are hoping to see a more united group behind the prime minister.
However, that will be strained by two big political battles that have opened up in the first week.
MPs will vote Tuesday on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s anti-manifesto plan to raise taxes to pay for health and social care. While the government easily won the first vote on the issue last week, legislation to enact it could be more difficult. Many MPs are deeply unhappy with the move, unaided by a YouGov poll for The Times over the weekend that showed Tory support at the lowest level since the 2019 election.
“I will support it, but it’s crap,” said one member elected in 2019. “I’m not necessarily against increasing national insurance, but it’s the fact that there is has absolutely no plan as to the use of the money. “
Added to this, the Conservatives’ concern over the next move to end a higher rate – or “hike” – on universal credit, the government’s flagship social assistance payment system, has scolded back. plan since the beginning of the year.
Basically, the two rows boil down to how the party defines itself, the pressure for a tightening of social security being a source of concern for many so-called “blue collar” conservatives and the rise in national insurance which worries all those who campaigned in the last election by promising not to raise taxes.
A former whip said it was visible that Tory MPs remained loyal to their own cliques even after returning to Parliament – new MPs rarely speaking to the old guard – and that the party could be content with a ” day of absence ”.
The government is expected to weather both storms this week, but they are sure to add up to longer-term headaches for Johnson.
Eyes on the next election
In January, six Tory MPs broke ranks to support a Labor motion calling for an extension of the uprising. Six former secretaries at work and pensions wrote to the chancellor in July to make the same appeal, as did the Northern Research Group of MPs.
The argument intensified last week when the Financial Times reported that the government’s own modeling shows that removing the impulse to universal credit could have “catastrophic” consequences.
Stephen Crabb, former secretary for work and pensions, summed up his concerns to POLITICO: “There are now very few people who privately do not accept that the UC cut is not going to cause real problems for families. The government will find itself brought back to this decision every time it wants to talk about reducing difficulties or improving social mobility.
On Monday, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey underlined the government’s position. “It’s a temporary uprising, recognizing that the reason it was introduced is coming to an end,” she told BBC Breakfast, stressing the need “to accelerate our plan for jobs”.
Even defending the move, she sparked new controversy, claiming claimants would only have to work two extra hours to make up for the end of the £ 20-per-week increase. Labor said that was wrong and that the graduated rate of the benefit means someone would have to work 10 hours overtime.
What can save the government is the fact that there is nothing substantial to rebel against. The change to universal credit was enacted by time-limited regulations that will expire without a vote in the House of Commons. Another Labor-led debate on the subject is scheduled for next week, but MPs don’t expect many Tories to put their heads above the parapet this time.
A Conservative MP who has previously criticized the government’s position on welfare said there had been a change in mood. “The colleagues came back from the summer wanting to show solidarity. These are tough issues that we all try to wrestle with and in general we want to be of service to the boss. “
Any revolt against welfare seemed doomed to failure, he added, as the government was “solid as a rock” and its state of mind had “hardened” over the summer. Several MPs said this was due to Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s determination to take greater control of public finances, with increased social spending costing £ 6bn per year, but also to deeper skepticism about the role of the welfare.
A high-ranking Conservative MP said: “I think he really thinks Social Security is rubbish – that it doesn’t solve poverty, which we know, and acts as a barrier to virtuous and virtuous conservative behavior. he is really serious about all of the ‘work, not welfare’, which he wants to be able to use in future election campaigns.
One minister put it more diplomatically: “It inevitably lays the foundation for what the economy will look like and what we can say in the next election, just because these things take a long time to filter through. We need to be able to present fiscal responsibility, growth and jobs in the next election, otherwise what’s the point of being the Conservative Party? ”
And while a lot has been written about supporting increased social spending among Red Wall conservatives, they are not a homogeneous group. Some members of the ‘common sense’ caucus in Parliament fully support ending the £ 20 increase, or would like to see universal credit cut further.
Instead of trying to change the Chancellor’s mind, MPs unhappy with the end of the recovery should focus their efforts on justifying adjustments such as changing the degressivity rate or providing additional support to applicants. having children.
The message that MPs have repeatedly heard from the Treasury is that it must have the capacity to introduce temporary measures associated with the pandemic and be able to provide examples of follow-up to their repeal.
The Chancellor may find his way to Universal Credit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he and the Prime Minister are heading for a golden age of Conservative cohesion.
Among seasoned and junior MPs, there is unease that they are not following through on the message of lower taxes and upgrading that led them to victory in 2019. If that sentiment is allowed to fester, the threat of an imminent reshuffle won’t be enough to keep everyone online.