PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn exposes the Conservatives' failure on homelessness

Theresa May had no adequate response to the 169 per cent rise in homelessness since 2010. 

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As Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn has had to perform many roles that he never envisaged. But at today’s PMQs he was on traditional territory: assailing the government over its close relationship with Saudi Arabia and the sharp rise in homelessness.

Theresa May, however, showed rare nimbleness. When Corbyn began by noting that tomorrow was International Women’s Day, she curtly thanked the Labour leader and accused him of “mansplaining”.

May made a robust defence of the UK’s ties to Saudi Arabia after Corbyn demanded that during her “arms sales pitch”, she “call on the Crown Prince [whose three-day state visit begins today] to halt the shocking abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia”. The link, May declared, had “saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in this country”, and she favourably cited shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry (who this morning described the relationship as “important”).

Apropos of nothing, Corbyn turned to homelessness (which has risen by 169 per cent under the Conservatives since 2010). May boasted that a government task force, which Corbyn alleged had not met, had in fact “met today”. But beyond such pedantry (and one meeting is nothing to celebrate), the Prime Minister had little to offer. “It's not just a question of improving figures, it's a question of changing people's lives,” May insisted, but local authority funding to help the vulnerable avoid homelessness, as Corbyn noted, has been cut by 45 per cent since 2010. The government’s aim, May affirmed, was to eliminate homelessness altogether by 2027 (and an “aim” it is likely to remain).

After Corbyn declared that “the growing number of people on our streets is a mark of national shame”, May recalled that he had described the last Labour government’s housing record as causing “misery and despair”. Yet for many, Corbyn’s appeal is precisely that he offers a break with the past (and as he noted earlier in the session, homelessness fell before 2010).

The rise in rough sleeping is, of course, a moral disgrace. But it is also a political problem for the Conservatives (who have pledged to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and eradicate it by 2027). The sight of rough sleepers enhances the sense among voters that the country has taken a wrong turn; that we live in an era of private affluence and public squalor. It was such emotions that lay behind Labour's landslide victory in 1997 after 18 years of Conservative rule. For too long, voters sensed, the government had neglected the public realm.

Unless the Conservatives can repair what David Cameron once called "Broken Britain", they risk again being exiled from power.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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