Sir John Major has called for an urgent change of tone from the Conservative government, including a review of universal credit, which he described as “operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving”.
The former prime minister said his party needed to “show its heart again, which is all too often concealed by its financial prudence”, if it hoped to fight off a Labour resurgence in the next general election.
“We are not living in normal times and must challenge innate Conservative caution,” he said.
Major claimed that universal credit, which simplifies the benefit system and aims to remove cliff edges as people move into work, was “theoretically impeccable”.
However, he suggested the implementation of the policy, which has led some claimants to turn to foodbanks as they wait up to six weeks for payments, required a rethink.
He also called for radical action across domestic policy including schools and housing, warning that failure to act would open the door to “the return of a nightmare”.
“It is apparent – even four years out – that the Conservatives face a real challenge in winning the next election,” Major wrote in an article for the Mail on Sunday. He said the alternative was a “Labour government led by two convinced neo-Marxists”.
He said he remembered the “far-left influence” of the 1960s and 1970s, which he said had resulted in “over-mighty unions, the strikes, the winter of discontent, the sky-high taxes”.
He argued that a tilt to the left or right was alway in the nature of politics, “but I recoil from the prospect of a Corbyn-led government”.
However, he underlined the scale of the challenge facing the Tories. “The Conservative party has to regain the affection and support of young and old, north and south, east and west – and this can never be achieved while we restrict ourselves only to the drumbeat of ‘Brexit, Brexit, Brexit,’” said Major.
“Our party’s support is ageing. Our policies are not attracting enough of the young, millions of whom believe the decision to leave Europe has damaged their future, for which they blame us.”
Theresa May is also facing pressure on universal credit from MPs on her backbenches, after Heidi Allen said she and 14 colleagues wanted the rollout to be paused.
“My understanding is there isn’t any legislation that might stop or start this, it is already in train. It is more a question of whether it reflects what we heard the prime minister say when she first became PM on the steps of No 10,” the Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“She showed to me a really clear understanding of people who are struggling to make ends meet. So to me, it doesn’t fit with that belief in a moral compass. These are the vulnerable people with no recourse to savings. We should be supporting them, because universal credit is about supporting people in work and helping them move up the working ladder and take on more hours. That is who we should, as Conservatives, be supporting.”
The work and pensions secretary, David Gauke, has said the rollout will continue as planned. “We’re not going to rush things; it is more important to get this right than to do this quickly, and this won’t be completed until 2022. But across the country, we will continue to transform our welfare system to further support those who aspire to work,” he told his party’s annual conference in Manchester.
However, he did promise to refresh the guidance to DWP staff to ensure that those needing advance payments received them upfront.
“Claimants who want an advance payment will not have to wait six weeks. They will receive this advance within five working days,” he said.
The Tory leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, said Gauke’s intervention would make a huge difference.
She said she often agreed with Major but did not believe the welfare reform was unforgiving. “The whole point of universal credit is that is it not. It replaces a system that if you worked beyond a certain number of hours you fell off a cliff edge. The whole point of universal credit is that it is a tapering system,” she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.
However, Davidson said she believed large programmes of government “should always be kept under constant review”.
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