Under Theresa May, Secretaries of State for Work and Pensions do not traditionally do very much work or accrue very much of a pension. But Esther McVey – the fifth person to be offered the job by Theresa May in the last 18 months, and the fourth to accept it – looks like she might be around to stay.
For one thing, it’s clear she practises what she preaches. In November 2013 she was laughed at for claiming sanctions “teach” benefit claimants to take the hunt for work seriously.
Two weeks ago, Justine Greening was offered Work and Pensions but turned it down. McVey on the other hand, doesn’t think she’s too good for it, and she intends to prove it.
Scarcely a fortnight into the job, she can already proudly boast that she has stood at the despatch box to announce a massive policy U-turn. Such things, whilst very much part of daily life under the May government, have traditionally been the preserve of Chancellors, or indeed May herself. McVey is not going to wait around for these opportunities to come to her.
A quick recap: just before Christmas, the Government suffered a significant blow when the High Court ruled its new benefits policy was “blatantly discriminatory” against people with mental health conditions. It was told it would have to start making backdated payments to the people it had discriminated against. Think of it as a bit like A Christmas Carol, only with a minor plot tweak in which Ebenezeer Scrooge’s sudden embrace of charity and goodwill towards the less fortunate is not forced upon him by a triptych of ghosts but a panel of High Court judges.
On Friday afternoon, with parliament deserted, McVey tabled a written statement admitting that she would not in fact be challenging the ruling, as the Government had, a fortnight before her time, threatened to do. She had decided the £181,000 legal bill was enough public money to spend on seeking to withhold benefits from people with mental illness, and she would in fact pay up after all.
In August of last year, a United Nations inquiry found the UK Government had committed “grave violations” of the rights of disabled people. It’s fair to imagine they will have been as surprised as the opposition benches by McVey’s defence. Why exactly had the Government been “blatantly discriminating” against people with mental illness? “When you try and expand support,” she said, “it’s not always going to be easy”.
Recent political trajectories on exiting the Department for Work and Pensions are varied to say the least. Stephen Crabb moved not sideways but downawrds, a consequence of a fondness for texting rarely observed in crustaceans. Damian Green went upwards to De Facto Deputy Prime Minister, but then downwards again to Disgraced Former De Facto Deputy Prime Minister, a position he is understood to be the first to hold. David Gauke was uncorked at a gentle angle in the direction of the Justice Department.
The passage of the McVey star across this muddled firmament will be fascinating to watch.