Former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major has warned Theresa May could face a backlash over universal credit similar to that experienced by Margaret Thatcher with the poll tax.

Sir John, who became Tory leader nine months after rioting broke out over the community charge in 1990, urged the government to rethink the rollout of its flagship welfare programme after reports it could leave families hundreds of pounds worse off.

His intervention, which will pile yet more pressure on Downing Street to rethink the highly contentious rollout of universal credit, comes after Gordon Brown issued a similar warning on Wednesday, describing the reforms as “cruel and vindictive”. 

Speaking to the BBC, Sir John said that failing to protect people who could lose out as a result of the reforms would trigger the “sort of problems that the Conservative Party ran into with the poll tax”.

While he denied he was predicting civil unrest, he said: “If you have people who face that degree of loss, that is not something the majority of the British population would think as fair, and if people think you have removed yourself from fairness then you are in deep political trouble.” 

“In order to introduce something like universal credit you need to look at those people who in the short term are going to lose and protect them, or you will run into the sort of problems the Conservative Party ran into the late 1980s,” he said.

“I don’t oppose the principle of universal credit,” he added. “I think there is a real danger that it will introduced too soon and in the wrong circumstances.

“So I do think we need to look very carefully at how it is introduced and when it is introduced and what the circumstances are and the resources there are available to assist its introduction.”

His remarks came after reports emerged that Esther McVey, the work and pensions secretary, briefed cabinet colleagues that the system could lead to some families losing up to £200 a month as it is rolled out across the country.

On Tuesday, Mr Brown, the former Labour prime minister, said that Britain could face turmoil not seen since the riots linked to the poll tax if the government pushes ahead with the rollout of the scheme.

Mr Brown described the welfare reforms as a “cruel and vindictive” experiment that will exacerbate the “convulsions” of Brexit and risk public disorder.

The poll tax riots in March 1990 erupted after a peaceful march by 70,000 protesters in London broke down into violent disorder, leading to 400 arrests and more than 100 injuries.

Speaking on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, Iain Duncan Smith, the architect of the welfare reforms while work and pensions secretary, defended the system and said universal credit is “functioning very well” and “there are tens of thousands of people out there who find this a better benefit”.

But Mr Duncan Smith added that he had resigned in 2015, he did so because there was a decision to take money out of the new welfare system. “We should direct the money back into universal credit exactly as it was originally planned to be rolled out,” he said.

Asked how much more needed to go into the system, he replied: “The reality is that £2bn that was taken out.”

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