Conservative MPs opposed to the looming universal credit cut have warned of an “angry backlash” ahead, predicting that the issue will be the biggest political problem for the party this autumn.
The warning follows reports of internal government modelling that predicts homelessness and food bank use will soar when the benefit is slashed by £20 a week from October – with one Whitehall official calling it the “disaster of the autumn”.
Tory MP Nigel Mills, who urged the government to push back the cut until March, told The Independent: “When people find they can’t make ends meet they will get upset and angry. The backlash and anger will really build when they lose those extra payments.”
The MP for Amber Valley in Derbyshire added: “How many fires do the government want burning? They’ve upset everyone with a [national insurance] tax rise. That won’t come until next year. So the [universal credit] reduction will be the next big problem for the government.”
Tory unease has been growing over the reluctance of Downing Street and the Treasury to extend the £20-a-week uplift introduced at the start of the pandemic.
Six former Tory ministers and dozens of backbenchers in the Northern Research Group (NRG) have urged ministers to think again. Andy Street, Tory metro mayor for the west Midlands region, said on Friday he was “very concerned” about the consequences of the cut on people’s incomes.
Conservative MPs have been inundated with emails and calls over the summer from benefit claimants worried about how they will pay their bills once they lose £86 a month from October.
John Stevenson, Tory MP for Carlisle, said anger about the end of the uplift was felt by colleagues across the UK – not just in the so-called “red wall” seats in the north of England.
The MP told The Independent: “It goes beyond the red wall seats. It will have an impact on a lot of communities, whether north or south or any other part of the country. It’s politically very difficult to take things away from people.”
Mr Stevenson added: “There are some people who have only known the benefit at the level it is at, so losing money each month is going to come as a shock to them. I actually think universal credit has been a success, and the additional £20 is part of the success … Why withdraw it at this stage?”
A Whitehall official told the Financial Times that the government’s own assessment predicts homelessness, poverty and food bank use will all “soar” when the benefit is slashed. “The internal modelling of ending the universal credit uplift is catastrophic. It could be the real disaster of the autumn.”
A Tory minister told the newspaper: “Colleagues are really worried; I think it will definitely eclipse social care as a political problem. It’s not just red wall MPs who are fearing a major backlash from the public.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) insisted that it had not carried out any formal impact assessment of the universal credit cut.
However, the opposition seized upon the report as evidence of misery to come. Labour MP Yvette Cooper, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “So the Tory government knows the universal credit cut will be catastrophic for homelessness, poverty, and families going hungry, yet they are still ploughing ahead with it. Truly appalling.”
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has warned that around 500,000 people will fall into poverty when the 6 million who claim universal credit see payments reduced next month.
Earlier this week, universal credit claimants told MPs that the £20-a-week uplift brought in at the start of the Covid crisis had proved to be a “lifeline” in their struggle to pay bills.
Around 1.2 million claimants fear they will have to skip meals if Mr Johnson’s government goes ahead with the cut, according to a poll for the Trussell Trust network of food banks.
Anthony Lynam, a single parent with two children, said: “Before the uplift was introduced we were already on a knife-edge … The uplift was some relief, and for that to be removed it will leave us with that big question again: do I go hungry? Do my kids go hungry?”
A government spokesperson said: “Universal credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work, and it’s right that the government should focus on our plan for jobs, supporting people back into work, and supporting those already employed to progress and earn more.”
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