The Labour leader has shown significantly more gusto at PMQs lately, what with the story his team leaked last month of texts suggesting Surrey County Council had been given preferential treatment by the government in funding social care.
Uncomfortably for the government, it was revealed yesterday that the council leader David Hodge told Tory colleagues that a “gentleman’s agreement” had been reached with ministers, which persuaded him to row back on his threat to hike council tax by 15 per cent via a referendum. (Both the Department for Communities and Local Government and Surrey Council deny that there was a sweetheart deal.)
After successfully ambushing Theresa May with the story in early February, Jeremy Corbyn returned to the subject – accusing the government of making a special arrangement with the Tory-held council to help ease the pain of stretched social care funding.
“Could the Prime Minister explain the difference between a sweetheart deal and a gentleman’s agreement?” he asked.
May was ready this time: “Has there been a deal with Surrey County Council that is not available to other councils? The answer to that is no.”
The Prime Minister insisted that Surrey’s decision was one “available to every council”.
Corbyn persisted with his questioning, playing on a point that is only going to get more painful for the government: “There is an acute social care crisis that affects every council. Can our Prime Minister tell every other council in England what gentleman’s agreement is available to them?”
The accusation of giving a Conservative council a leg-up, and the sticky subject of local government cuts hitting social care hard, are both sore subjects for May. So much so that she was forced to hide behind the upcoming Budget to halt Corbyn’s questioning:
“Be a little patient and wait half an hour for the Budget – he’ll find out what social care funding is available to all councils.”
Whether he’ll hear what really happened behind the scenes between Surrey County Council and DCLG is another question.