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6 March 2019

The Conservatives are losing on knife crime, and three other lessons from this week’s PMQs

Labour believes it can beat the government by framing its attacks in terms of austerity.

By Patrick Maguire

Labour think they can beat Theresa May on knife crime

On the biggest story of the week – and one that isn’t going away anytime soon – the prime minister sought to steal a march on Jeremy Corbyn at the session’s outset, announcing she would hold a special Downing Street summit on knife crime in “the coming days” and also meet with victims. 

May offered a catalogue of reviews, commitments and consultations in response to Jeremy Corbyn’s questions, all of which were framed in terms of austerity: namely cuts to policing, probation services, mental health provision, schools, colleges, and youth and children’s services. 

But though she cagily insisted that the resources available to forces had increased, her answers were neither convincing nor coherent. She also risked seeming tone-deaf in an emotive week – both the public mood and that of senior figures in her own Cabinet, most notably Sajid Javid. 

With rates of violent offences increasing across Britain – and crime as an issue ranking ever higher on polls of voters’ concerns – May’s denials will have a distinct ring of untruth for many voters. And as ever, her tentative acceptance of the argument that austerity must end leaves her in a funny place: she is defending levels of spending that she herself has acknowledged are insufficient. 

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The Labour leadership’s calculation is that Corbynomics couched in these terms – as a fiscal remedy to social ills – is a proposition the public agrees with. May’s faltering performance will only boost their confidence.

Labour MPs are still angry at the government’s towns fund…

Phil Wilson, the Labour MP for Sedgefield, had a pointed and grimly amusing question for the prime minister: by what century would the £15 million a year for the North East provided under the government’s £1.6 billion towns fund make up for the billions in cuts the region had suffered since 2010?

That opposition MPs believe the prime minister’s Brexit sweetener to be a derisory gesture has been obvious since its announcement on Sunday night – but the fact that resentment is still festering suggests it could well have the opposite effect to that intended. The towns fund is now so politically toxic that even MPs sympathetic to its desired end – the passing of a Brexit deal that looks more or less like May’s –could be unwilling to facilitate it for fear of looking guilty by association.

…so with just three weeks to go, Commons is no closer to agreeing on Brexit

Wilson, of course, is a supporter of a second referendum. His criticism of the towns fund thus serves the dual purpose of highlighting its inadequacies both on its own terms and as a political device to engineer a majority for the prime minister’s Brexit deal. 

Wilson and his supporters believe that the more divided the Commons, the stronger the case for a fresh vote. He will have been heartened by the deep fissures on show this afternoon. May loyalist Simon Hoare urged his Conservative colleagues to support the withdrawal agreement, Labour Remainer Anna McMorrin urged a lengthy delay to Article 50, and Brexit-friendly opposition MPs enthusiastically assented to Wilson’s remarks. 

Absent the sort of compromise on the Irish backstop that has not yet been forthcoming – and shows no sign of emerging – a fissiparous parliament looks beyond reconciling to any solution.

Housing will be high on the agenda for the next Tory leader

Huw Merriman – a ministerial aide to chancellor Philip Hammond – asked May a tricky question on high leasehold charges and ground rents for new build homes, calling out several property developers by name in the process. 

It’s in some respects a technical point – but the iniquities of the property market are increasingly animating Conservative MPs and activists. The next Tory leader will need a convincing story to tell and package of solutions to sell on housing. After all, how do you create a new generation of capitalists if they don’t have to access to capital? 

Just how the contenders choose to answer the question of how the government should solve the housing crisis – the state vs the market, brownfield vs greenfield, et cetera – and which solution Tory MPs find most attractive – is likely to define the contours and tenor of the ideological debate in British politics for a generation.