At the general election, Jeremy Corbyn performed an act of political jiu-jitsu when he used Theresa May’s apparent strength (her record on law and order) against her. By exposing May’s record of police cuts as home secretary, Corbyn left the Conservatives with no hiding place (and defied expectations of his party).
With crime now officially rising (by 14 per cent in the most recent figures), the Labour leader reprised this theme at today’s PMQs. “Does the Prime Minister regret cutting 21,000 police officers?” Corbyn succinctly began.
May insisted that police budgets were now protected, but the figures are unambiguous: police budgets were cut in real-terms by £2.3bn from 2010-15 and have been cut by another £500m since 2015.
Corbyn drew on some unlikely sources to strengthen his case. Conservative MP Philip Davies, he noted, had warned: “The first duty of the government is to protect the public and keep them safe and I have to say to the government they are not putting enough focus on police resources” (Davies greeted the quote with a thumbs-up from the Tory backbenches).
Having struggled to defend her own record, May moved to denounce Corbyn’s. The Labour leader, she said, “doesn’t have that good a record when it comes to increasing the powers of the police to do their job”. She cited his vote against making custodial sentences compulsory for those twice caught carrying a knife.
“I am very clear that crime is of course wrong,” was Corbyn’s somewhat unfortunate reply (as if he could plausibly believe that it is right). But he returned to his winning theme: “After seven years of cuts, will the Prime Minister today admit that her government’s relentless cuts to police, probation services and social services have left us less safe? The reality is you can’t have public safety on the cheap.”
That May resorted to citing former shadow home secretary Andy Burnham’s past support for police cuts (Labour has since pledged to fund an additional 10,000 officers) was a mark of her wakness. Once so confident on law and order, the Prime Minister had no definitive riposte to Corbyn today.
The Labour leader’s decision to ignore the subject of Brexit (as May’s inner cabinet prepares to meet) stunned some. But Corbyn has little interest in exposing his party’s own divisions on the subject. And in the May local elections, the issue of crime will weigh far more heavily on voters’ minds than that of the customs union.