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20 June 2018

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn challenges Theresa May on her unfunded NHS pledge

The Prime Minister can no longer easily denounce Labour for higher taxes and higher borrowing. 

By George Eaton

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May traditionally accuses Jeremy Corbyn of unfunded spending commitments. But this week, the roles were reversed. After the Prime Minister’s promise of £20.5bn more for the NHS, Corbyn warned there would be no “Brexit dividend” until 2022 and challenged May to name the tax rises she would impose.

The PM insisted that all would be revealed in this autumn’s Budget and, to the delight of the Tory benches, quoted Corbyn against himself. In a recent speech, she noted, the Labour leader declared: “We will use funds returned from Brussels after Brexit, to invest in our public services and the jobs of the future, not tax cuts for the richest.”

Corbyn, however, recovered well, thanking May for “reading my speeches so closely” and emphasising that he would use the “Brexit dividend” to maintain EU spending in other areas (such as regional development and agriculture). He then produced a revealing quote from the 2017 Conservative manifesto: “Firms and households cannot plan ahead with the threat of unspecified higher taxes.”

But May, evidently grateful for the opportunity to highlight her NHS pledge, again ignored Corbyn’s challenge. And though he continued to mock “mystery taxes”, the Labour leader did not challenge the Prime Minister to rule out specific rises (such as frozen income tax thresholds, higher VAT or higher National Insurance).

The session then descended into an argument over which party would spend most on the NHS (Corbyn noted that Labour would have provided a 5 per cent increase this year, compared to May’s promise of 3.4 per cent). As I wrote earlier, Corbyn and Brexit have combined to shift British politics to the left. The era of “tax and spend”, it turns out, is far from over.

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The Tories, who have long recognised the NHS as a political vulnerability, believe that voters will welcome higher spending regardless of how it is eventually funded. But today’s PMQs also demonstrated how much harder it will be for them to denounce Labour for “more borrowing and more taxes” they are now promising the same.

In response to the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford, May condemned the US’s child separation policy as “disturbing” and “wrong”. But though that could earn her a denunciatory tweet from Donald Trump (something the Tories may well regard as a blessing), May insisted that Trump’s planned official visit next month would proceed.