I wrote last week about the threatened rebellion against Universal Credit. In the event, only one Conservative MP – Sarah Wollaston – voted with the Opposition last night. Every single other Conservative MP stayed away altogether.
There are a number of reasons. First, the Government applied a three-line whip – though only to abstain, thus cannily avoiding the potential clash of trying to compel all its MPs to vote for its position. That gave an out to some of those who would otherwise have been put in a difficult bind.
Second, the position of unhappy Conservative MPs was fundamentally different to that of the Labour Party. As I pointed out a week ago, the would-be rebels were explicitly not opposed to Universal Credit in itself – in fact, they openly support its goals and core principles, but have concerns about the details of its implementation. So the Opposition, by choosing to make the motion about stopping the reform in its entirety, helped to deter them from voting for it.
As Johnny Mercer, one of those with doubts, put it on Twitter yesterday:
From a party whose welfare policies destroyed communities in places like Plymouth, encouraging welfare dependency over work? No chance. pic.twitter.com/t0Nw59WHGi
— Johnny Mercer MP (@JohnnyMercerUK) 17 October 2017
Third, the Government helped things along a bit by offering a concession: that the DWP helpline for those seeking an advance to tide them over would be free, instead of charging up to 55 pence a minute for calls. That’s a welcome improvement, which we had called for, but only a limited one.
The primary concern is the wait of six weeks (and sometimes longer than that) between application and payment. It might sound satisfying to say “people starting a new job get paid in arrears, too”, but that doesn’t address the fact that many of these applicants don’t have the means – or sometimes the capacity – to get through that period without a penny, and the system of advances evidently isn’t catching everyone in a safety net.
That problem remains unaddressed, which means that while there was no serious rebellion last night, the concern on the backbenches has not gone away – and the reality out in the country has only improved a little. There is still potential for more trouble from this quarter, be it in Parliament or in the press.