Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called the PM “pathetic” for ordering Tory MPs to abstain from a vote on extending a £20 weekly rise in Universal Credit, and said that “in their heart of hearts” Tories would back Labour’s move.
The Prime Minister was working to lessen the scale of a potential revolt from his within his own party as Labour uses an opposition day debate in the Commons on Monday to force a vote calling on the Government not to end the uplift, worth £1,000 a year.
Mr Johnson was also facing pressure from the 65 Conservative MPs in the Northern Research Group (NRG) who said ending the increase in April as planned would be “devastating”.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi derided Labour’s symbolic move as a “political stunt”, and the Prime Minister told Conservatives in a WhatsApp message to miss the vote and accused Labour of “playing politics” with “legislatively vacuous opposition debates”.
But the Labour leader told ITV’s Lorraine: “If he’s going to call it a stunt he (Mr Johnson) should probably come with me to a food distribution centre to see these families this morning and explain to them what is a lifeline to them is a stunt, because it certainly isn’t from their point of view.
“I actually think in their heart of hearts quite a lot of Tory MPs know that cutting this money to people who desperately need it in the middle of a pandemic is the wrong thing to do, they know that, they probably want to vote with us but because of the tribal way we do politics, they can’t.
“The Prime Minister’s now saying in answer to the question: ‘do you think this uplift should stay or not?’ he’s saying: ‘I don’t want to say yes and I don’t want to say no, so we’re going to abstain.’ He’s got no view on whether it should stay or not – that’s pretty pathetic.”
In a statement on behalf of the NRG, Carlisle MP John Stevenson said the Universal Credit increase had been a “life-saver” for people through the pandemic.
“That is why the NRG are once again calling on the Chancellor to extend the Universal Credit uplift until restrictions are lifted, to ensure that individuals and families who have been worst affected by this pandemic are supported through our recovery with the security they need,” he added.
The Government temporarily increased the benefit to help families through the Covid crisis, but the uplift is due to expire in April, potentially hitting the incomes of six million families.
The vote would not be binding on the Government, but is being forced by Labour to demonstrate the strength of feeling over the cut in the Commons.
Labour’s motion states: “This House believes that the Government should stop the planned cut in Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit in April and give certainty today to the six million families for whom it is worth an extra £1,000 a year.”
Mr Zahawi told Sky News: “This debate today has no real impact on the outcome on those families, other than a political little stunt for Labour.”
The Government is also facing pressure from charities to keep the uplift, with Action For Children saying the case against cutting it “couldn’t be clearer” with unemployment set to peak in the summer.
Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan said the Government must make the £20-a-week increase permanent to “help stop hundreds of thousands of people falling into poverty”.
In a statement released by the Conservatives, Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey said Labour would “scrap Universal Credit” and “leave millions of people with an uncertain future”.
“This Conservative Government has consistently stepped up to support low income families and the most vulnerable in society throughout this pandemic, and will continue to do so,” she added.
The debate comes amid a warning from the Resolution Foundation that scrapping the £20 a week uplift will lead to a particularly tough 2021 for low-income households, whose incomes could fall by 4%.
The think tank estimated that the withdrawal of the benefit increase would drive up relative poverty from 21% to 23% by 2024-25, pushing a further 730,000 children into poverty.
Karl Handscomb, senior economist at the Resolution Foundation, said: “The living standards outlook for 2021 looks bleak at present – but the Government can directly improve it.
“Deciding if the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit should be extended will determine whether millions of households are able to enjoy any sort of living standards recovery next year.
“And looking further ahead, the decision on whether to keep the UC boost will help define whether this is to be a parliament of ‘levelling up’ living standards, or pushing up poverty.”