BORIS Johnson has insisted the UK Government could not be faulted in its financial support for people during the pandemic as Sir Keir Starmer branded him “pathetic” for ordering Tory MPs to abstain in this evening’s Commons vote on maintaining a £20-a-week rise in Universal Credit.

Downing St denounced Labour-inspired non-binding votes on welfare and free school meals as a “political stunt”.

The Opposition is calling for the Universal Credit increase, that is estimated to help almost six million people across the UK, to be made permanent. Charities and anti-poverty campaigners are arguing for this too.

The Prime Minister insisted the Government wanted to make sure “people don’t suffer as a result of the economic consequences of the pandemic” as he was pressed over the looming £20-a-week cut to Universal Credit but repeatedly refused to say if it would continue beyond its scheduled end date in March.

He declared: “I don’t think you could fault the Government for supporting people; we will continue to do that.”

Mr Johnson went on: “What we have said is we will put our arms around the whole of the country throughout the pandemic. We have already done £280 billion worth of support and we will keep all measures under constant review.”

He added: “It’s the policy of the Opposition to abolish Universal Credit altogether, which I don’t think is a sensible way forward.”

In calling on Conservative MPs to abstain on Labour’s Universal Credit motion, the PM accused the Opposition of “inciting the worst kind of hatred and bullying”.

His Press Secretary, Allegra Stratton explained Mr Johnson was “urging everybody…to be civil and kind to each other when debating matters that clearly matter greatly and passionately, not just to parliamentarians but to people up and down the country”.

She too attacked Labour, saying: “It is them making families up and down the country concerned they will not be able to get the food they might need during the February half-term, when that is not true.

“Labour is pulling a political stunt because they know that children who could go hungry during the February half-term will not go hungry because of the policy that is in place.”

Downing St said Rishi Sunak was considering the issue and would make his views known “shortly”. His Budget is on March 3.

On Friday, the PM, Chancellor and Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, met to discuss the Universal Credit issue but it is thought the matter was unresolved. There has been suggestions Mr Sunak could offer a one-off £500 payment to households or extend the £20 weekly increase for a few more months.

While it is thought Mr Johnson and his Chancellor want to end what was initially described as a temporary uplift, some Conservative colleagues want it to be extended or even made permanent.

Tory backbencher Stephen Crabb, the former Work and Pensions Secretary, said he would be voting with Labour and said that, although there were "difficult pressures on the Chancellor," extending the increase for 12 months was "the right thing to do".

Sir Keir stressed the £20 Universal Credit increase had been the “difference between making ends meet or not for many, many families”.

He explained: “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic and the Government wants to get rid of that uplift which is vital to families; it’s the wrong thing to do.”

The Labour leader claimed it was a “completely false point” for the Tories to attack him for suggesting the increase should be maintained while also calling for Universal Credit to be scrapped and replaced in the long-term.

“Nobody’s talking about scrapping it in the middle of a pandemic,” he declared. “It’s a completely false point to take the focus off the real issue. The real issue is: in a pandemic, do you really strip away £20 from desperate families?

“That’s a difference, over a year, of about £1,000; that’s paying the gas, the electricity and the internet bills,” headed.

Sir Keir said Tory MPs “in their heart of hearts” wanted to back Labour’s vote to keep the £20-a-week Universal Credit increase and called Mr Johnson “pathetic” for ordering his party to abstain.

He told ITV’s Lorraine: “If he’s going to call it a stunt, he should probably come with me to a food distribution centre to see these families this morning and explain to them what is a lifeline to them is a ‘stunt’, because it certainly isn’t from their point of view.

“In their heart of hearts, quite a lot of Tory MPs know that cutting this money to people who desperately need it in the middle of a pandemic is the wrong thing to do, they know that, they probably want to vote with us but because of the tribal way we do politics they can’t.

“The Prime Minister’s now saying in answer to the question ‘do you think this uplift should stay or not,’ he’s saying: ‘I don’t want to say yes and I don’t want to say no, so we’re going to abstain’. He’s got no view on whether it should stay or not; that’s pretty pathetic.”

He added: “In their heart of hearts they[Tory MPs] would actually vote with us today if they had the option to do so.”

Meanwhile, Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, pointed out how his party wanted the welfare increase to continue but also dismissed the Labour-inspired vote as a stunt.

The Moray MP said: “The Scottish Conservatives have argued for months that the Universal Credit uplift, which has helped nearly half a million people across Scotland alone, should continue.

“The Labour Party business will not achieve that, and we can see this is already being used as a political stunt, which helps no one. We will continue to engage constructively with the UK Government and we hope the upcoming Budget will see a positive outcome from our lobbying.

“We have also urged the SNP to bring forward free school meals for all primary pupils in Scotland this year. In December, the Scottish Parliament backed our motion to deliver that policy and only the SNP refused to support it,” he added.

But Neil Gray for the SNP said it was “shameful” that "supine" Scottish Tory MPs were preparing to vote against Scotland's interests, yet again, by abstaining on this evening’s vote.

"This proves that the Tories cannot be trusted to stand up for families in Scotland,” declared the party’s spokesman on work and pensions.

“By slashing social security payments by £1000 a year, in the middle of an economic crisis, the Tories will push millions of families further into hardship and poverty.”

Calling for an immediate U-turn,” Mr Gray said: “It is crucial the £20 uplift to Universal Credit is made permanent and extended to legacy benefits, as part of a wider package to boost incomes after a decade of damaging Tory austerity cuts.

"If Douglas Ross had any shame at all he would be utterly embarrassed that the supine six Scottish Tory MPs are putting the incomes of millions of people at risk by following Boris Johnson's orders again while rebel Tory MPs in Wales and England are defying him.”