Panto season arrives in the Commons as leaders clash over Universal Credit cut

Boris Johnson declared “panto season has come early” in a raucous House of Commons as he faced pressure to cancel his planned Universal Credit (UC) cut.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also accused the Prime Minister of “hammering” workers by hiking national insurance from April 22, with the two policies predicted to result in millions of people losing more than £1,000 a year.

At one stage both Sir Keir and Mr Johnson engaged in call-and-response soundbites with their own backbenchers, prompting the Prime Minister to add: “I can see that panto season has come early.”

Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, amid furious heckling and shouting from both sides, intervened to say: “Order! Order!

“If it is, it’s certainly behind you.”

Sir Lindsay Hoyle (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)
Sir Lindsay Hoyle (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

The exchanges between the two leaders began in sombre fashion as Sir Keir offered his condolences to the Prime Minister following the death of his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, who died at the age of 79 on Monday.

Sir Keir then asked: “How many extra hours a week would a single parent working full-time on the minimum wage have to work to get back the £20 a week the Prime Minister plans to take away from them in his Universal Credit cuts?”

Mr Johnson failed to answer the question and instead claimed: “I will give you a statistic, every single recipient of the Universal Credit will lose their benefits under Labour because they want to abolish Universal Credit.”

Sir Keir countered: “The Work and Pensions Secretary (Therese Coffey) seems to think it is an extra two hours a week.

“So let me make it even easier for the Prime Minister, is the correct answer higher or lower than that?”

Mr Johnson replied: “What I can tell him is that under this Government, for the first time in decades, wages are rising.”

He added: “Of course, what they want to do is to continue to take money in taxation and put it into benefits.

“We don’t think that’s the right way.

“We want to encourage high wages and high skills.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (House of Commons/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson (House of Commons/PA)

Sir Keir said the scenario he highlighted would see that person needing to work more than nine hours a week extra to get the money back from the UC cut.

The Labour leader added: “The truth is that these low-paid workers can’t work longer hours to get back the money the Prime Minister is cutting from them.

“He knows it, they know it, millions of working families will be hit hard, very hard by the Prime Minister’s Universal Credit cut.”

He added: “After his national insurance rise for every extra pound that these workers earn, his Government will take more than 75p from them.”

Mr Johnson insisted the national insurance hike of 1.25 percentage points will help fix the NHS backlogs before adding Labour “simply do not have a plan”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (House of Commons/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer (House of Commons/PA)

Sir Keir went on: “This country’s success is built by working people but the tax system is loaded against them.

“The Prime Minister may not understand the pressures facing families across the country but we do.

“The reality is this: taxes on working people – up; national insurance – up; council tax – up; energy bills, food prices, burdens on families – up. Up, up, up.

“The Prime Minister needs to get real and understand the terrible impact of his decisions on working people across this country.”

Sir Keir urged Mr Johnson to “cancel the cut” to Universal Credit, adding: “And then to stop clobbering working people with unfair tax rises. Will he do so?”

Mr Johnson replied: “I can see that panto season has come early.”

He then asked MPs: “Which country has the fastest growth in the G7?

“Where is employment? Up.

“Where are job vacancies at the highest level? Up.

“As for wages – they are up, higher than they were before the pandemic.”

The Prime Minister went on to highlight Sir Keir’s 14,000-word essay on what he stands for, asking: “Why does the world have to wait for the thoughts of ‘Chairman Keir’?

“Having listened to what he’s had to say, his non-existent plan for Universal Credit, his non-existent plan for health and social care, I can compress those 14,000 words to four: vote Labour, wait longer.”

Ministers have come under sustained pressure to reverse their decision to end the £20 UC uplift introduced to support families during the coronavirus pandemic.

The extra payments will be phased out from the end of September.