James Frayne: Esther McVey is the Tory minister to keep tabs on
The new work and pensions secretary is hated by the left but has the potential to be extremely popular amongst certain voters.
Why did the Conservatives send Esther McVey back to the Department for Work and Pensions as secretary of state when she attracted so much hostility while there in the last Parliament? And with McVey in place, how can the Conservatives be expected to deal with their vulnerability on the issue of welfare reform?
These are easy questions to answer. Contrary to popular assumptions, the public are hugely supportive of welfare reform; and there is no political vulnerability for the Government on the issue of welfare. In fact, the Conservatives enjoy massive competitive advantage on the issue with swing voters - and much of the public want the Government to go for further in correcting what they see as a system that rewards people that don’t want to work.
There are caveats to this, of course. People aren’t heartless: they support a strong welfare state – unemployment benefit for those that have been made redundant through no fault of their own, and generous support for those that are simply too ill or too physically or mentally impaired to work. Anger at stories where DWP has been unjustly harsh to those that clearly can’t work is universal. The British public have a very developed sense of fairness and defending those that can’t defend themselves.
But there are caveats to these caveats. Many voters passionately believe that the system has been too generous to those that haven’t worked for years and they believe that others play the system and claim illnesses that aren’t serious. There is a very strong belief that, as far as possible, and with obvious exceptions, people should have “paid into the system” before taking anything out in benefits.
Whether this is right or wrong is not the focus of this article, the focus here is purely on the politics. And the point is that public appetite for welfare reform is one of the most under-appreciated realities in British politics. It's undoubtedly a reason why the lower middle class flocked to the Conservatives in 2015 and it's a reason why working class voters are continuing to haemorrhage from the Labour party.
If voters are so enthusiastic for reform, why is this not more commonly understood? Three things mask this enthusiasm.
Firstly, the massive outpouring of hatred on social media towards those politicians that drive reform. Secondly, the extreme moral confidence that Labour politicians display in attacking the Government, and Esther McVey particularly. And thirdly, the fact that parts of the media devote so much attention to specific case studies about those that lose out from change.
Together, these factors make it appear that the Government is doing something against the wishes of the public. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
In my experience in focus groups with lower middle class and affluent working class swing voters, people are obsessed about two things: the NHS; and welfare. These issues are spontaneously raised all the time. On the former, as I suggested last month, regardless of their political affiliation, the public basically agree that the NHS is in crisis and needs more money. On the second, they're convinced that the welfare system is too generous and needs reform.
To suggest this is driven by right wing tabloids is wrong. There's no doubt these newspapers amplify a perceived problem. But most people in most focus groups hold the beliefs they do because of what they see, or think they see, in their own communities. They think that while they get up early, work hard all day, come home exhausted and then help their kids with their homework, they some others essentially get paid by the Government for doing nothing. It’s hard to overstate the confidence with which they hold these beliefs.
What does this mean for Esther McVey? It means that while she’ll likely continue to attract hatred from the left, she has the potential to be extremely popular amongst the working class and lower middle class of provincial England. Not only is she likely to be fighting for what they see as right, she’s great on TV and popular within the Tory party. She could well emerge as a contender for one of the biggest jobs in Cabinet if she performs well at DWP.
Picture by: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images.