Theresa May cannot get away from universal credit – and Jeremy Corbyn cannot get to it quickly enough.
This botched reform of the social security system hangs over May like so many policies from the Cameron era. Too weak to ditch it, she is stuck with a decision for which she has little enthusiasm but cannot escape. Remind you of anything?
For Corbyn, the shambolic roll-out of universal credit is a chance to press home his core argument about where the Tories have gone wrong. Cruel in its design, chaotic in its delivery and glacial in its roll-out, the new benefit synchronises much of his criticism of the government.
It was no surprise then that the Labour leader concentrated on UC for his first four questions today.
“Last week the house voted by 299-0 to pause the roll-out of universal credit. Will the prime minister respect the wishes of the house?”
It was short and simple and a step up from the lengthy questions with which Corbyn kicked things off two years ago.
May, of course, doesn’t like answering questions from MPs – or journalists on the campaign trail – and responded by claiming that the Tories were introducing “more straightforward system” and deploying the usual Tory line about people “trapped on benefits” under the last Labour government.
It wasn’t terribly effective but, with Brexit talks falling apart around her, the PM is surviving from week to week.
Corbyn, as I end up saying each week, is increasingly confident. This wasn’t quite the stellar show of last week, which many pundits judged as his best effort at the despatch box, but he was comfortably ahead of an enfeebled prime minister who had earlier been contradicted by David Davis on the timing of an MPs’ vote on the final Brexit deal. The maverick minister told a Commons committee that a “meaningful vote” could come after Britain has actually left the EU.
Back in the Commons, May ploughed on, perhaps wishing it would all end. Yesterday, however, Corbyn had received what in political terms represented an absolute gift – a ringing denunciation of universal credit from a Conservative politician.
“I have to say to you all that I think this position is indefensible and if I’m challenged I will say so,” wrote Angela Burns, a Welsh Assembly member, in an email she accidentally sent to all her colleagues in the Cardiff parliament before it was passed to ITV News.
“For the life of me I cannot understand why a six or four week gap is deemed acceptable. It should be a seamless transition and it’s not beyond the wit of man to make it so. I’m all for UC and I agree the benefits system should be overhauled and people paid appropriately but this cavalier attitude that the poorest can muddle through is callous at best and downright cruel at worst. I’m ashamed of my government.”
So there you have it – there was not much more Corbyn needed to say. The Tories have been condemned by their own words and their own people.
As Labour MPs jeered May, Corbyn ramped up to another quote, this time from Iain Duncan Smith, who was the architect of UC.
The former work and pensions security grinned uneasily as Corbyn quoted his explanation that the six-week wait for claimants to receive the benefit was one of the reasons why he had resigned from the government.
It was easy stuff for Corbyn, who supporters and detractors alike realise is fired up by the social injustices of Tory Britain.
The best joke came not from the exchanges between the two main party leaders but from somewhere on Labour’s benches when – after the Commons speaker demanded that “the prime minister must be heard” – one MP shouted out “that’s you Jeremy”.
A year ago, a comment like that would have been seen as black humour. Two years past and it would probably have come from a sardonic voice on the Tory benches. The turnaround since then has brought us to the moment when Corbyn sees himself as a PM in waiting and May has become weary of the weekly Wednesday jibes about her being an “interim prime minister”.
For Corbyn, another election cannot come soon enough. For May, the chaos of universal credit typifies how she is trapped not in poverty of income but starved of power and ideas.