Now that Esther McVey is back in government as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Left has reinstalled her as Tory bogeywoman, which rather suggests she must be doing something right. When employment minster during the Coalition, she was of course targeted by the then obscure Labour backbencher John McDonnell; although McDonnell insists he was simply the messenger of the now notorious question ‘why aren’t we lynching the b*****d?’, his description of McVey as a ‘stain of inhumanity’ was Johnny’s own bon mot. It was McDonnell who set the tone for a vitriolic campaign which in 2015 culminated in McVey narrowly losing her Wirral West seat.
Earlier this week McVey also experienced the kinder, gentler politics of Scotland, with the Labour-supporting Daily Record of April 17 running the front page headline: ‘McVile’s back and she’s twice as nasty.’
Tomorrow’s Daily Record front page. Esther McVey slammed over comments on hated ‘rape clause’ pic.twitter.com/nDSR4TXZGB
— The Daily Record (@Daily_Record) April 16, 2018
This insulting epithet evidently tickles the sub-editors at the Record: in January 2018, the report of her appointment as Secretary of State had been headlined: ‘Return of McVile: Benefits axewoman returns to wreak more misery on Britain’s most vulnerable.’
The latest ‘McVile’ slur was the Record’s response to her having the previous day answered questions from Holyrood’s social security committee on the policy of Universal Credit. The paper continued to demonise McVey in an editorial which began: ‘The Daily Record nicknamed the Work and Pensions Secretary “Esther McVile” in 2014 because of her callous attitude to welfare cuts. In retrospect, we were being far too soft on her. The Tory Minister’s staggering comments on the hated rape clause at Holyrood’s social security committee yesterday was a new low for this morally bankrupt Government.’
Just as the Tories in coalition did not robustly challenge the term ‘bedroom tax’ – only in Leftist La-La land is restricting a handout defined as a tax – so in government the Conservatives have pitifully failed to prevent ‘rape clause’ becoming an emotive part of the political lexicon, particularly in Scotland.
Enhanced Universal Credit, replacing what previously was Child Tax Credit, is now available only for the first two children; however, it does remain possible to claim for three or more in cases such as multiple birth or adoption. More controversial is the exemption also available for children ‘likely to have been conceived as a result of a non-consensual sexual act (including rape), or at a time when the claimant was subject to ongoing control or coercion by the other biological parent of the child’ – this being what has, for political gain, mischievously become known as the ‘rape clause’.
The wisdom of introducing a two-child limit is justifiably a matter of debate, although there is no constructive discussion to be had with the pressure groups such as Engender, ‘Scotland’s feminist membership organisation’, which preposterously describes the benefit limit as ‘state intrusion into women’s reproductive decisions’. Nevertheless, it requires extreme political myopia not at least to acknowledge that allowing application for exemption due to a coerced conception had been well-intended as a compassionate measure.
Predictably, though, the so-called rape clause has been gleefully wielded by cynical opportunists from across the Scottish Left, all eager to bash the hated Tories: according to SNP MP Alison Thewliss, the policy is ‘barbaric and vile’; for Nicola Sturgeon it is ‘utterly abhorrent’; and Holyrood social security minister Jeane Freeman has called it a ‘fundamental violation of human rights’ – all of which confirms that, in adversarial politics, no good deed by a Conservative goes unpunished.
It was against this background that Esther McVey pitched up at Holyrood to face a committee of MSPs, largely comprising hostile Lefties for whom voters should be beholden to the state, and for whom no amount of public spending is ever enough and no benefit can possibly be overly generous. From this mindset sprang a demand by the SNP’s Ben Macpherson for McVey to give an all-encompassing apology for welfare reform which, when it was not forthcoming, prompted heckling from the public gallery that resulted in a brief suspension of proceedings.
The meeting concluded with questioning on the so-called rape clause which, though relatively brief, inevitably dominated press reports, in particular McVey’s reply to Scottish Greens’ Alison Johnstone asking the loaded question: ‘Are you comfortable with idea that a woman has to prove non-consensual conception to access an entitlement?’
Emphasising there will be ‘no invasive or delving questions’ and that neither DWP nor the Treasury will directly deal with such claims, McVey replied: ‘People will be supported and directed to various other organisations, which might give them an opportunity to talk about something that has happened to them that they might never have had before. There is potentially double support there – they will get the money that they need and perhaps an outlet that they might need.’
McVey’s suggestion that putting the claimant in touch with ‘health professionals or other suitable people who can help’ might potentially be beneficial – what the Daily Record condemned as ‘staggering comments’ – was a typically gutsy and entirely logical exposition of the policy, though needless to say her critics did not appreciate this. ‘A disgraceful performance,’ raged the committee’s deputy convener, Labour’s Pauline McNeill. ‘To badge up the vile rape clause as some sort of virtuous policy to provide support is simply skin-crawling.’ And from south of the border came the inevitable contribution from Jess Phillips: ‘Esther McVey has shown how ignorant she is of the issue of sexual violence if she thinks that disclosing to a complete stranger would be a good thing.’
These ‘complete strangers’, who it is intended will assist claimants, are not to be bloodless bureaucrats from the DWP but health professionals and women’s support groups. However, both Rape Crisis Scotland and Scottish Women’s Aid have refused to act as third party referrers, the latter claiming ‘it is not compassionate, nor can it ever be made so’. But whether these bodies like it or not, the government policy is a fact; therefore, it does seem extraordinary that agencies which constantly allege rape, sexual assault and domestic violence to be grossly underreported and under-convicted are not prepared to counsel women in this instance because of their ideological opposition to Universal Credit.
McVey returned south having given a more spirited defence of government policy during a one-hour meeting than the largely docile Holyrood Tories have managed during the past year. Naturally, her sprightly conviction incurred the wrath of much of the Scottish media and most of Scotland’s political class, reinforcing Esther McVey’s position as the Left’s bête noire. This much was evident when, two days after her appearance at Holyrood, the SNP’s Ian Blackford asked during PMQs (from 16’30”): ‘Does the PM agree with her secretary of state that the rape clause provides victims with double support?’
May’s response was typically insipid, in contrast to McVey’s much bolder performance 48 hours earlier. If only Esther had tapped the PM on the shoulder and said: ‘Take a breather, Theresa – I’ll handle this one.’