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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn skewers Theresa May on everything from cuts to tuition fees

The Prime Minister dodged questions over falling wages and future job cuts.

 

After more than seven years in government, the Conservatives have provided Labour with no shortage of targets. At today’s PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn took aim at most of them.

The Labour leader began by raising disability benefit cuts (an issue all too rarely discussed in parliament), noting that the UN had described the situation as “a human catastrophe”. Though Theresa May replied that the government had increased the amount of support being given, she was unable to deny that the disabled had been hardest hit by the spending cuts.

From here, Corbyn unsurprisingly segued into public sector pay. As he noted, the pay rises awarded to the police and prison officers are, in fact, wage cuts once inflation (2.9 per cent) is taken into account. When pressed by Corbyn, May notably refused to rule out further job cuts in these sectors. The Labour leader replied with a succinct summary of austerity: "There are 20,000 fewer police officers and 7,000 fewer prison officers than in 2010, 43 per cent of police stations have closed in the last two years alone, police budgets cut by £300m”.

May did, however, boast of the increase in the personal allowance (she rarely noted this Cameron-era policy during the election) and of the record employment figures. But the problem for the Tories is that even in a labour market this tight, real pay is still falling (leading to the longest sustained fall in living standards since the Napoleonic wars).

Corbyn then turned to student debt, rising child poverty (“by the end of this Parliament, five million children in this country, the fifth richest in the world, will be living in poverty”) and homelessness. “Not only is our economy at breaking point, but for many people it's already broken, as they face up to the poverty imposed by this government,” he concluded.

"Who was it who introduced tuition fees? It was the Labour Party!” May replied. But though Labour did indeed introduce fees, it was the coalition government that tripled them from £3,000 to £9,000. In light of this, and Corbyn’s anti-New Labour credentials, it wasn’t the strongest line of attack.

Labour, May warned, “would only destroy our economy as they did last time”. But as the economic harm of Brexit becomes daily more evident, with worse likely to follow, this attack is a diminishing asset. May’s personal flaws aside, her grim inheritance of Brexit and austerity means she is struggling to trump Corbyn at these occasions.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget gaining £350m a week, Brexit would cost the UK £300m a week

Figures from the government's own Office for Budget Responsibility reveal the negative economic impact Brexit would have. 

Even now, there are some who persist in claiming that Boris Johnson's use of the £350m a week figure was accurate. The UK's gross, as opposed to net EU contribution, is precisely this large, they say. Yet this ignores that Britain's annual rebate (which reduced its overall 2016 contribution to £252m a week) is not "returned" by Brussels but, rather, never leaves Britain to begin with. 

Then there is the £4.1bn that the government received from the EU in public funding, and the £1.5bn allocated directly to British organisations. Fine, the Leavers say, the latter could be better managed by the UK after Brexit (with more for the NHS and less for agriculture).

But this entire discussion ignores that EU withdrawal is set to leave the UK with less, rather than more, to spend. As Carl Emmerson, the deputy director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, notes in a letter in today's Times: "The bigger picture is that the forecast health of the public finances was downgraded by £15bn per year – or almost £300m per week – as a direct result of the Brexit vote. Not only will we not regain control of £350m weekly as a result of Brexit, we are likely to make a net fiscal loss from it. Those are the numbers and forecasts which the government has adopted. It is perhaps surprising that members of the government are suggesting rather different figures."

The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, to which Emmerson refers, are shown below (the £15bn figure appearing in the 2020/21 column).

Some on the right contend that a blitz of tax cuts and deregulation following Brexit would unleash higher growth. But aside from the deleterious economic and social consequences that could result, there is, as I noted yesterday, no majority in parliament or in the country for this course. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.