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17 October 2018

Theresa May’s enemies are perplexed by her anti-austerity pledge – but so are her allies

The promise is good for winning parliamentary exchanges but its longterm political value is less clear.

By Stephen Bush

In practice, Prime Ministers Questions has two functions: the first is that it is a useful device for the Prime Minister of the day to exert control over their government, the second is that, as with party political broadcasts, they are a good insight into what the big two political parties actually think the next election is going to be about and also a useful way of checking the health of their messaging.

PMQs is fundamentally different from a televised debate but some of the backroom skills necessary to get through them and to anticipate possible bear traps are the same. So what does PMQs tell us at the moment?

On the Conservative side, it tells us that Theresa May is pushing on with this line about “ending austerity” even though from a policy perspective, spending restraint is not going to end. I don’t understand why she thinks this is a good idea, but I take comfort from the fact that most Conservative MPs and according to today’s Guardian the Chancellor of the Exchequer are similarly mystified.  

Sure, crowing about ending austerity can and will hand May a couple of victories over Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs. In today’s session, which was more of a dour draw than anything else, May essentially decided that, although it made no sense in response to what Corbyn had said, to close off with a prepared mini-speech about ending austerity. It was not a great mini-speech in truth. But she is riding for a fall when public spending continues to be squeezed and those consequences may be felt as soon as the Budget on 29 October.

As for Corbyn, he has started to use all six of his questions to talk about Brexit fairly regularly – an approach which, like May’s, seems misguided. To do Brexit well in the PMQS format you need to be a master of the policy detail and skilled at thinking on your feet – neither of which can truthfully be said of the Labour leader. Also, his parliamentary party, like the Conservatives, is split on the issue. Added to that, the Labour leadership has decided it believes that the path to the next election runs through England’s small, Leave-voting towns. And although Labour’s Brexit position is harder than many of its MPs and some of its activists would like, it is several degrees softer than that preferred by many of the voters the party is targeting. Brexit also does less well for the party on Facebook than clips of Jeremy Corbyn on core domestic issues.

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There is really only one audience for Corbyn using all six of his questions on Brexit: politicos who tend to roll their eyes on Twitter when the Labour leader avoids the topic. He could get the best of both worlds by asking one question on Brexit and then moving onto other things, rather than favouring an approach that plays to his weaknesses. This is less of a problem for him than May’s “we’re ending austerity” shtick as the loss is one of an opportunity foregone rather than a hostage to fortune. But it still means both leaders are, at present, making problems for themselves.

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