She has only been in cabinet for a month and is hardly a household name across Britain. Yet by the end of the winter, Norwich North MP Chloe Smith could be the country's most controversial politician. NOAH VICKERS explains why

As the government tries to regain the initiative after its botched mini-budget and find ways to trim public spending, attention is increasingly focused on the thorny issue of benefits, and just how much should they go up by.

Should they rise with inflation, to help the poorest in society to tread water among the cost of living crisis?

Or is it unfair to shield those on universal credit from inflation, while those not on benefits, but still struggling, see their wages fail to keep up?

It's an extremely delicate policy decision and the woman who has to make the call is none other than work and pensions secretary Ms Smith.

And the pressure is already building on her.

Inflation is at its highest rate in decades, meaning that salaries are not stretching as far as they had before.

And some argue that rather than increasing benefits with inflation, they should only rise in line with the smaller average rise in wages.

Asked on Sunday about the issue, prime minister Liz Truss said: “This is something the Department for Work and Pensions secretary is looking at, at the moment.

%image(16000361, type="article-full", alt="Prime minister Liz Truss (right) with presenter Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC1 current affairs programme, Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg")

“She will make a determination on that, and we will announce that this autumn.”

The Norwich North MP has limited political space to manoeuvre.

After being forced into a damaging u-turn over whether to abolish the top rate of tax for people earning more than £150,000 a year, the government is now fighting to defend its 'growth plan' - which it says will help boost Britain’s economy after years of stagnation.

But the plan’s unpopularity with voters has led to a cataclysmic collapse in Conservative support, with Labour notching up several record-high leads in the opinion polls in recent days.

Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng has said that he wants to stick within spending allocations made in 2021 – even though inflation is now more than twice the forecast peak of 4pc made then.

To stick within those allocations would necessitate some £18bn of public spending cuts.

And in a recent Times interview, Simon Clarke, the levelling up secretary, criticised the “very large welfare state” and said Whitehall departments would have to “trim the fat”.

%image(14416818, type="article-full", alt="Levelling up secretary Simon Clarke")

But there are also several senior Tory MPs concerned about that fat-trimming falling onto benefits, with former party leader Iain Duncan Smith saying such a move wouldn’t “make a huge amount of sense”.

%image(14834242, type="article-full", alt="Iain Duncan Smith who quit the Cabinet, branding cuts to benefits for the disabled in George Osborne's Budget "indefensible". Photo: Ian Nicholson/PA Wire")

Ms Smith is herself reported to harbour significant reservations about the cuts affecting her department - and she told her party’s conference this week: “Protecting the most vulnerable is a vital priority for me.”

But this debate is not just an arcane one exercising the Westminster village.

It is no exaggeration to say that Ms Smith's decision could have immediate and severe consequences for millions of vulnerable Britons fearful for what lies ahead this winter.

As the MP with the most marginal seat in Norfolk, her prospects at the next election are uncertain to say the least - current polls have Labour winning in Norwich North by a landslide.

After more than a decade in parliament and a month in the cabinet, Ms Smith has the toughest call of her career - and the country is watching to see what she does.