If Esther McVey’s accepting abroad with it, things have to be absolutely bad | Frances Ryan

There are times so close to being ridiculous that only a cliche will do, so forgive me: a week really is a long time in politics.

Last Wednesday Esther McVey went in front of the work and pensions select committee to answer questions about universal credit, among other areas. Barely a week ago, the secretary of work and pensions was facing calls to resign amid claims she had grossly misled parliament. And yet as the government patches itself up after the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson, McVey’s position seems surer than ever. 

The irony of her current brazen predicament can hardly be lost on most jobseekers. If someone on universal credit made an error – no matter how slight or unintentional – they would be hauled in front of an official, and promptly have their benefits sanctioned. If a cabinet member gives false information to parliament – of significant proportion and even knowingly – they can get away with it with barely a slapped wrist. 

There’s a worry that the sheer scale of Theresa May’s Brexit disaster, coupled with the depth of her cabinet infighting, means McVey’s actions are already the political equivalent of tomorrow’s chip paper. These are, after all, not typical times.

In any other government, Johnson would not have been allowed the dignity of resignation: he’d have been sacked months ago. At any other point, McVey’s actions would, at a minimum, lead a prime minister to launch an investigation into whether one of her officials knowingly lied to parliament. Yet against this current crop, McVey can misrepresent an independent body’s report in order to hide the failings of her department and still have competition to appear the most incompetent or unethical cabinet member.

Let’s not forget, Jeremy Hunt – a man who oversaw a flatlining NHS and a social care system “on the brink of collapse” – was somehow the longest serving health secretary in history, before being rewarded with the Foreign Office this week.

Is this the best we’ve got now – ego, incompetence and deceit? This is not simply about individual politicians: the behaviour of those from Johnson to McVey reflects and determines their entire department.

The foreign secretary chose the day after a murder investigation was launched into the death by a nerve agent of a citizen on British soil to put the focus on his own career; there was no thought either as to how his exit would “complicate” the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, currently languishing in a Tehran jail.

Meanwhile, McVey – a woman who as disability minister promised to go after “the bogus disabled”, and thought it was “right” more people were going to food banks  – isn’t so much a bad apple at the Department for Work and Pensions but a perfect reflection of its culture in recent years: one with more of an interest in politicised spin than the facts, which defensively dismisses any criticism, and has a cavalier attitude towards the suffering its policies are causing. 

The new additions to May’s cabinet do not exactly suggest the cavalry have arrived. The new Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, is on record as saying that people forced to go to food banks simply have “cash flow problems”, as well calling feminists “obnoxious bigots”.

The new housing minister, Kit Malthouse, the eighth to take on the role since 2010, was quoted in The Mirror this week as openly admitting he made life “uncomfortable” for homeless people as part of a “zero-tolerance crackdown” as deputy leader of Westminster council – a crackdown described by one critic as “hosing [the homeless] out of doorways”. That’s a man running the housing brief who appears to have a disdain for people without a home.

It would understandable at this point to feel that the standard of politics, politicians and policies is in the gutter; or that to be resigned to destructive agendas and the dishonesty, cruelty or incompetence of their architects is almost normalised.

But it feels there has rarely been a more important time to reject this – to say that, actually, politics can be better than this, and it needs to be. After all, neither universal credit nor Brexit negotiations is about whatever power play a few public schoolboys are engaging in. These are real political actions that have consequences for real people’s lives.

And that’s surely the point. Over the coming days, the focus of most news outlets will probably be Conservative infighting (indeed, two more party chiefs have also quit over May’s so called soft-Brexit plan). But the real issue is not the soap opera in May’s cabinet – it’s the damage this will cause to millions of people in this country who rely on politicians to actually govern. 

Theresa May has reshuffled her cabinet, but let none of us pretend this is business as usual. Our government is made up of self-serving ideologues and careerists. This isn’t politics at its best. It’s shameless.