Ever since the Conservatives’ austerity programme began in 2010, the harshest spending reductions have fallen on local councils. By devolving the cuts, the Tories hoped to avoid the blame.
But in the form of the bankrupt, Conservative-run Northamptonshire, this approach has returned to haunt them. At today’s PMQs, in advance of the 3 May local elections, Corbyn neatly framed the issue: “Does the Prime Minister believe the collapse of Northamptonshire council is the fault of Conservative incompetence at a local level, or is it Conservative incompetence at a national level?”
May, who appeared entirely unprepared, could only reply that “Conservative councils cost you less”. (Labour has responded with figures showing that council residents, in fact, pay more in Tory-controlled areas.)
After Corbyn denounced Northamptonshire’s “easy council” model, which involved the outsourcing of 96 per cent of its staff, May replied that the council’s problems were not solely due to “underfunding” (a claim that Corbyn did not actually make).
But as the Labour leader went on to note, councils are still facing a £5.8bn funding gap by 2020. “With hindsight,” Corbyn asked, “does the Prime Minister really believe it was right to prioritise tax cuts for the super rich and big business?”
May cut a more confident figure when she derided Labour’s internal divisions. Local leaders, she said, had been ousted in Haringey, Brighton and Cornwall, partly in revenge for “tackling anti-Semitism”. And the Prime Minister could further cite the defection of two Labour Ashfield councillors to the Tories (including the office manager of shadow justice minister Gloria De Piero), gleefully quoting their words: “Both locally and nationally, the Labour Party has been taken over by the hard left who are more interested in fighting internal ideological battles than standing up for the priorities of working men and women.”
Corbyn, who sensibly ignored May’s political jibes, repeated his mantra with New Labour-esque discipline: “Pay more, get less [under the Conservatives].” But the Prime Minister had saved some ammunition for her final response, boasting that unemployment remained at a record low and employment at a record high – leaving the Labour leader with no chance to reply (he could have noted that the jobless total rose by 24,000 over the quarter and that real wages fell for the 11th consecutive month).
May managed to avoid the humiliation that her first answer promised. But she would still be wise to prepare a better response if, as some Tories fear, more councils go the way of Northamptonshire.