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13 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 12:52pm

The next Tory leader needs answers on housing, and other lessons from today’s PMQs

By Patrick Maguire

The next Conservative leader must provide real answers on housing

Marking its second anniversary, Jeremy Corbyn used all six of his questions to press Theresa May on the government’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire. He asked why, despite government pledges that it would be hastily removed, 328 high-rise buildings across the country were still covered in the same sort of flammable cladding as the West London tower block.

The Labour leader went on to warn that the owners of 70 of the buildings had no plans in place to remove the dangerous cladding, and that the government had not ensured that sprinkler systems were in place in other high-rises. He demanded that ministers moved to ensure their removal by the end of the year. 

May – who, rather surreally, cited her response to Grenfell as a point of pride during her resignation speech – defended the government’s record but ultimately would not be drawn on the specifics of Corbyn’s demands. These sorts of questions will dog her successor, and their housing secretary.

More broadly, Corbyn’s questioning served to expose Tory weaknesses on an issue that keeps more thoughtful sorts on the government benches awake at night: the struggles of Generation Rent. He asked whether the government would move to strengthen tenants’ rights and extend the Freedom of Information Act to housing associations. Again, May offered aspirational flannel about amplifying the voices of those who lived in social housing. 

Her successor, however, will need to offer much more substantial answers on the housing crisis if the Conservatives are ever going to regain ground in the cities and among young people.

Scottish Tory MPs are right to be nervous about Boris Johnson

Four of the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs are now backing the frontrunner to succeed May, but tellingly, he was the first choice of only two – one of whom was a hardline Brexiteer and thus atypical of the group. 

Their reluctance to back Johnson from the off reflects the fact that just about everybody at Holyrood and Westminster – including his supporters – believes his premiership has the potential to be an existential threat to the future of the Union. 

For evidence that their fears are well-founded, look no further than Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader. For the second week in a row he chose to ask May not about her record, but that of her most likely successor. 

Blackford quoted from a poem from Johnson’s Spectator that called for the “extermination” of the Scottish people, and went on to accuse the former foreign secretary of racism. 

Though May insisted that any Tory prime minister would serve the people of Scotland better than the SNP, the Nats are already making a great deal of hay out of Johnson’s not-yet-existent premiership. Johnson must act decisively and fast on Scotland if he is to mitigate the negative impact the mere fact of his being prime minister will have.

Brexit isn’t the only cause for rebellion on the Tory benches

One of the most illuminating questions of the session came from Ken Clarke. The veteran europhile did not ask about Brexit but instead challenged May to avoid making big commitments on public spending in a bid to secure her legacy. 

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, has already threatened to resign rather than approve billions in new spending proposed by the prime minister. He has challenged the leadership candidates to commit to keep the national debt falling and the deficit below two per cent of GDP each year. 

With the exceptions of Michael Gove and Rory Stewart, none have obliged – and instead promises of tax cuts and new spending abound, with no costing to speak of. Clarke also warned those vying to replace May to keep the books balanced. The contradictions inherent in promising lower tax and higher spending are bound to cause trouble for whoever wins, especially if they decide the answer is more borrowing. To many Tory MPs, that would be anathema – and for as long as the government has no majority, they will have an outsized ability to make ministers’ life hell.

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