Theresa May says she doesn’t regret calling the snap election that lost her majority. But there are two regrets she probably does have. The first would be her speech about helping the “just about managing” on the steps of No 10 when she took office. The second would be forgetting about austerity as a Tory priority.
Both of these decisions have come back to bite her – and can be used ruthlessly by Labour. Nowhere was this clearer than the last PMQs before Parliament breaks up for recess.
For what seemed like the tenth week in a row, Jeremy Corbyn was able to hit the Prime Minister where it hurts on the public sector pay freeze, arguing that people are being squeezed by low wages and rising inflation. He said she needs a “check on reality”, and brought up the Chancellor Philip Hammond’s alleged comment about public sector workers being “overpaid” – an unconfirmed quote, and the result of a leak from cabinet members arguing to lift the cap.
Corbyn’s attack on this worked two ways: exposing the cabinet’s divides on the subject, and also – more importantly – cementing the public’s preconceptions about the Conservative Party.
The Tories are always trying to shed their image as the party of the rich, out-of-touch with “ordinary” people. But being called out on in-work poverty and low-pay only perpetuates this image – and May’s promise to help struggling working-class families makes it even worse. It’s no longer just a Tory stereotype; it’s a betrayal.
This pay freeze is symbolic of the debate about austerity that resurfaced after Corbyn’s election performance. His success was taken by many Tories as a vote against austerity. That’s why there are both cabinet members and backbenchers who think it’s time for a different approach. Corbyn has emboldened them, but May has done more to do so. By dropping George Osborne’s deficit targets, and borrowing to invest in infrastructure, she allowed austerity to drop off the agenda. This is making it all the more difficult for her and her Chancellor to now defend.
So the Conservatives won’t only be thinking about their next leader over the summer. They’ll be searching for the soul of their party too.