The disgraceful scrapping of the £20 Universal Credit top-up shows Boris Johnson’s true colours

·4-min read
‘It’s actually quite hard to understand how anyone could kid themselves that the nasty party had been put on the shelf after Boris Johnson dealt with Brexit’ (Getty)
‘It’s actually quite hard to understand how anyone could kid themselves that the nasty party had been put on the shelf after Boris Johnson dealt with Brexit’ (Getty)

If you’re appalled by the antics of Boris Johnson and the party he reshaped in his image, get set for a fun summer.

The decision to axe the £20 Universal Credit (UC) uplift - originally badged as a temporary measure to help struggling families through the Covid-19 pandemic - will serve as a boil on the corpulent backside of the government throughout the next few months and on into the autumn if it goes ahead.

It’s going to be festering, leaking pus and forcing its way into the news cycle - even in the absence of the usual silly season - thanks to the recklessness of the pandemic reopening, the dizzyingly stupid lifting of mask mandates and the problems created by a boom in people self-isolating. Oh, and let’s not forget the extra coffins that will probably be needed given the potential for deaths to mount again.

It’s actually quite hard to understand how anyone could kid themselves that the nasty party had been put on the shelf after Boris Johnson managed to “get Brexit done". But I supposed it’s just about possible if you pretend Priti Patel doesn’t exist, and that Gavin Williamson appears to be in the Department for Education just to give his colleagues a post to lean against.

The UC cut makes it impossible. It shows Johnson’s true colours. And it knocks quite a bit of the shine off the king-in-waiting, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, too.

There’s also the fact that Iain Duncan Smith has made it clear that he thinks the cut is too nasty. And Esther McVey has done the same. And so have Stephen Crabb, Damian Green, Amber Rudd and David Gauke, all of whom also once had the big job in the Department for Work and Pensions which is being asked to do the dirty work so Sunak can recoup some of what was blown on developing the NHS contact tracing app.

The incumbent Therese Coffey was reduced to waffling about “collective responsibility” when she was asked about it by MPs, which translates as: “The boss said jump so I’m jumping - but I’m not happy about it either and I want you to know that”.

Standard practice when it comes to controversies over squeezing benefits like this is to fend them off by implying that claimants are all lazy b******s and if we didn’t crack down on them they wouldn’t look for work.

Ministers mostly resort to coded language to say as much, leaving it to backbench hecklers to spell it out for anyone not listening.

We’ve had signs of that hoary old chestnut being dusted down. But it’s going to be a tougher sell this time because, and you know what’s coming, Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey think the cut is too nasty and so do all the others.

The problem with turning the tap off just as the furlough ends - the inevitable result being a very hard landing for the people whose employers decide they can’t keep them - is also fairly difficult to miss. The same is true of the way food banks have been growing.

Marcus Rashford has, meanwhile, explained why free school meals matter so much to hard up families in the school holidays.

Ministers better hope he doesn’t come on from the subs bench on Sunday because it could cause them a heap of extra trouble if he does and England win the Euros as a result. Patel isn’t going to be able to deport football if it comes home.

These elements combined have helped strike a blow to the idea that lift on benefits is easy street.

It literally causes me physical pain to find myself in agreement with Duncan Smith, because I’m disabled and he kicked my community in a very painful place while he was at the DWP. But he’s right to highlight the problem with taking £1,000 a year out of the pockets of Britain’s poorest families and to point out that the best way to cut the benefits bill is to help them back into work.

He, and other former work and pensions secretaries who signed a letter urging a rethink, can probably also see the tanker full of toxic sludge this cutback is going to pour over the Tory brand.

That’s quite delightful for those of us who would like to get shot of this dreadful government.

But if the price of getting the Tories out is tipping more hungry children into poverty, it’s too high. So I hope his warning is heeded and another government U-turn is the result.

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