Theresa May has long sought to define herself as a politician who keeps her word and doesn’t play “games”. But her decision to call a general election (having vowed not to do so) flagrantly undermines her brand. At today’s PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn immediately exploited this opportunity. “We welcome the general election,” he began. “But this is a Prime Minister who promised there wouldn’t be one, a Prime Minister who cannot be trusted.”
Corbyn’s attack was, as often, overly scattergun, ranging across the TV debates (May won’t do them), child poverty, wages, the deficit, schools cuts and the NHS. But a theme was discernible: “broken promises”. The Labour leader assailed the Tories for missing their debt and deficit targets and for breaking their pledge to protect school funding. After May insisted that the Conservatives’ record was one of success, not failure, Corbyn riposted: “If she’s so proud of her record, why won’t she debate it?”
But May, like David Cameron, is likely to pay little price for ducking the debates and revived her predecessor’s most potent lines. Only the Conservatives, she declared, could deliver a “strong economy” and “strong defence” (a theme that Corbyn’s anti-Trident stance will bring to the fore). When Corbyn complained about debt levels, she replied that Labour had pledged to borrow £500bn. Like Ed Miliband, the opposition leader will struggle to distinguish between “good” and “bad” borrowing.
May drew on the goldmine of anti-Corbyn quotes available to her. “We know what Labour’s plans would entail because we’ve been told by the former Labour shadow chancellor [Chris Leslie],” May said. “You’d have to double income tax, double national insurance, double council tax, and you’d have to double VAT as well” – that’s Labour’s plan for the economy.”
When Yvette Cooper (who is increasingly spoken of as Labour’s next leader) rose to speak, she delivered a more ruthless version of Corbyn’s attack. “She wants her to believe she is a woman of her word; isn’t the truth that we can’t believe a single word she says?” May replied by again lashing Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems for seeking to obstruct Brexit (an attack that inspired the Daily Mail’s “Crush the saboteurs” headline).
Though much has changed, 2017 feels a lot like 2015: Labour denouncing the Tories’ “broken promises; the Tories warning Labour would “bankrupt Britain”. The lines are familiar; Corbyn can only hope the outcome isn’t.