The prime minister appears to have had a personality transplant. There are those of us who remember Boris Johnson driving a JCB with “Get Brexit Done” on the front of the digger through a polystyrene wall marked “Gridlock” during the last general election. Others may recall him waving fish or a cheque for £350m made out to the NHS in the Brexit referendum campaign.
Then there was the zip-wire, along with too many other attention-seeking photo opportunities to mention. In fact, it’s often felt as if Johnson’s entire political career has been built on one childish stunt after another.
Some may also remember Johnson abusing his opponents. During the Brexit debate he frequently accused remainers of collusion, surrender and general acts of treachery. Only last week he was called out by the Speaker for calling Keir Starmer hypocritical. But enough is apparently enough. Boris has now officially distanced himself from the political stunt. According to Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s spokesperson, Boris has also undergone a damascene conversion on language.
He now believes that our politics should be conducted in a “kind and civil” manner. So no doubt we can look forward to Johnson unreservedly apologising to Starmer for all the insults he has thrown at the Labour leader over the past nine months and to treating him with some of the respect and civility Starmer has shown him.
At least these were the reasons Downing Street dredged up for the Tories washing their hands of the opposition day debate on maintaining the £20 increase in universal credit. According to Boris, Labour was guilty of a low-rent stunt aimed at unnecessarily worrying the public by calling for a debate on this issue.
And because some Labour supporters had been angry on Twitter about the worst-off being further impoverished, Johnson was urging all Tory MPs to abstain in the non-binding vote. Only a cynic could imagine that asking his MPs – some from badly-hit “red wall” constituencies who might be tempted to vote with the opposition – to vote for a £20-a-week cut would not be a great look and that abstaining was the least bad political outcome. Indeed, some might even call abstention a stunt had not Boris already assured us that kind of behaviour was a thing of the past. We were at Tory politics Year Zero.
With the outcome not in doubt and only a handful of MPs in the chamber, the debate itself felt particularly low-key. Opening for the opposition, the shadow work and pensions secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, was keen to point out that calling for the £20 UC uplift to be maintained was not a stunt but a lifeline for many of the poorest families. What would be a stunt would be to introduce a one-off payment of £500 or £1,000 as that would not be available to the 800,000 or more people expected to lose their jobs in the coming year.
Reynolds was also keen to offer an olive branch to the government benches. He wasn’t going to characterise them all as heartless bastards – that would not be kind, civil or helpful – especially as he knew that many of them secretly (and not so secretly) agreed with Labour on this, so he was just making a plea to the deluded and the misguided to have a rethink. And yes, Labour would ideally get rid of UC and replace it with a fairer welfare system, but as it wasn’t in a position to effect that change it was calling for the least bad option.
There was no sign of the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, in the chamber – something Reynolds attributed to the fact that she was one of the many Tories whose idea of kindness and civility was to extend the £20 uplift for another year at least to see the country through the worst of the pandemic. So it was left to junior minister Will Quince to make the case for the government. He tried to look chipper and upbeat, but his optimism rang hollow. His job was merely to get through the session relatively unscathed.
The government had been doing a great job in helping people out already, he said, but the way to get people out of poverty was through work, not benefits. That was why he was so pleased to have recruited 125 mentors to help people find jobs. He was also at pains to point out that the chancellor’s £20 increase had only ever been temporary and that come April there could be more than enough work for everyone – I’m not sure what he knows that every other economic forecaster doesn’t. It would be wrong for Rishi Sunak to act too soon by giving people certainty about their finances, when they were all about to become millionaires anyway. Giving the extra £20 would only make people feel bad about themselves.
Labour, SNP and DUP backbenchers all pretty much restated Reynolds’s case, many of them citing emails from constituents about how the £20 had made the difference between survival and the food bank. As indeed did some Tory MPs, such as Stephen Crabb and Simon Fell, who felt that, although the government had done a good job in supporting the least well-off during the pandemic, now was not the kind or civil time to withdraw that help.
They seemed to have less faith in the coming economic miracle than many of their colleagues, some of whom were profoundly unbothered about how the country was going to pay for its £280bn bailout fund but desperate to know where the £6bn to pay for the £20 increase in UC was coming from. Never let it be said MPs don’t sweat the small stuff.
The vote though was never in doubt, meaningless as it was. Though everyone suspected there would be a U-turn on this by the government sometime between now and the next budget. And when it was announced, there would be no great celebratory stunt from Johnson about how much he single-handedly was doing to support the country. Rather he would kindly and civilly thank the opposition for showing him the error of his ways.