To the surprise and disdain of Westminster, Jeremy Corbyn chose not to ask the Prime Minister about Brexit but about austerity. Yet there was no mystery to this choice: Labour is divided over the former and united over the latter. Corbyn is far more comfortable assailing public spending cuts than he is describing his party’s increasingly tortured Brexit stance. And the public are far more concerned with the cost of austerity than with backstops and obscure parliamentary warfare.
Corbyn reminded Theresa May of the UN special rapporteur’s excoriating report on poverty in Britain last month. “When the Prime Minister read the report what shocked her more? Was it the words the UN used or was it the shocking reality of rising poverty in Britain?” asked Corbyn.
May responded, as is traditional, by noting that employment is at a record high. But the problem is that, for too many, work no longer pays. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Corbyn noted, had found that in-work poverty levels, now at 4m people, are rising faster than employment. Universal Credit, the system that was supposed to “make work pay”, has left ever greater numbers dependent on food banks (“not just a photo opportunity for Conservative MPs”), while the UK has the weakest wage growth of all the G20 countries.
To this end, Corbyn demanded that May translate her rhetoric (“burning injustices”) into action and end the benefits freeze, repeal the bedroom tax, scrap the two-child limit on tax credits, and halt the roll-out of Universal Credit. May, unsurprisingly, insisted that the status quo was acceptable.
Though Westminster pretends otherwise, the questions of austerity and Brexit are intertwined. The Leave vote was not just a revolt against EU membership but a symptom of profound economic and social discontent: the largest public spending cuts in postwar history, the longest fall in living standards since the Napoleonic Wars and a precipitous decline of trust in national institutions. Should the government fail to address these defects, the only certainty is that further political shocks will follow.