The economy was once comfortable terrain for the Conservatives. David Cameron regularly tormented Ed Miliband over the record of the last Labour government. But at today’s PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn pulled off the political equivalent of an away victory.
The Labour leader wisely began by welcoming today’s fall in unemployment (depriving Theresa May of the chance to taunt him later) before quickly noting that real wages were still lower than a decade ago. “Does the Prime Minister really believe falling wages are a sign of a strong economy?” Corbyn mockingly asked.
After May praised “a first” from the Labour leader (“he’s actually welcomed a fall in unemployment!”), Corbyn shot back: “I wonder if the Prime Minister could do ‘a first’ and answer a question?” May pointed to the remedial action taken by the government – income tax cuts, the fuel duty freeze (a sure-bet to remain in next month’s Budget) and a higher minimum wage – but she had no succinct answer to the longest fall in living standards since the Napoleonic wars.
May later sought to deliver a Thatcher-esque lecture to Corbyn (“government has no money of its own”) but the Tories now struggle to own “economic credibility”. First, as Corbyn swiftly noted, there is the political headache of the £1bn gifted to the DUP. But more fundamentally, the government’s intention to withdraw Britain from the world’s largest single market makes it far harder for the Tories to frame Labour as an “economic threat”.
When May warned against “racking up debts today like Labour” (the Conservatives having added £813bn to the national debt since 2010), Corbyn was able to harness the Prime Minister’s nemesis, George Osborne, noting that he had recently praised Gordon Brown’s handling of the crisis.
To confirm his current political dominance, Corbyn claimed credit for the introduction of a free Universal Credit (UC) phone line (a change he demanded at last week’s PMQs) and called on May to “pause” the programme entirely. But May resolutely defended UC (“It’s a simpler system, it’s a system that encourages people to get into the workplace”) in defiance, as Corbyn noted, of “the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Trussell Trust, John Major and two dozen Tory backbenchers.”
Though May’s performance was far from her worst, she could not disguise the impression of a government losing the battle of ideas. For much of the post-2010 period, the Tories could reliably defeat Labour on the economy. But as in so many other ways, the old rules no longer apply.