Ever since she became Prime Minister, Theresa May has avoided mounting a vigorous defence of the Conservatives’ spending cuts. Though she did not break with austerity in practice, she did in rhetoric. But at today’s PMQs, after a week of confusion, May doubled-down on cuts.
She warned that all decisions on public sector pay would be balanced by the need to “live within our means”, that the UK risked becoming Greece if it didn’t deal with its deficit and that it was unfair “to load debts on to our children and grandchildren”. Having sacked George Osborne last year, today she stuck remorselessly to his austerity script.
In response, Jeremy Corbyn, who has grown in confidence since the election, landed a series of rhetorical blows. “The Prime Minister found £1bn to keep her own job,” he noted of the DUP deal. Why couldn’t she find the same money for nurses and teachers? May was forced to resort to the technical argument that the former benefited from pay progression. “I hope the Prime Minister is proud of her record of controlling public sector pay to the extent that hard-working nurses have to access food banks in order to survive,” Corbyn sardonically remarked. While May warned that the deficit threatened the economy, Corbyn riposted that a a “low pay epidemic” did.
The problem for the Tories, as they seek to regain the advantage, is that the task of deficit reduction no longer appears urgent. Having missed their aim of eliminating borrowing by 2015, they are now not forecast to do so until 2025 – a decade later. Meanwhile, though the £1bn for the DUP is small beer compared to the £773bn the government spent in 2016-17, it is large enough to be politically toxic.
May was aided by vocal support from Tory MPs (some of whom relished the clarity she provided), with even Remainers Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry asking helpful questions, but the Labour benches were equally cheered. “I know the Right Hon Gentleman has taken to calling himself a government in waiting,” May told Corbyn (breaking the rule that one should never repeat an opponent’s lines). “Well, we all know what that means – waiting to put up taxes, waiting to destroy jobs, waiting to bankrupt our country. We will never let it happen.”
The problem for May is that if a weary public believe the only way to end austerity is to end Conservative government, they are ever more likely to do so.