It is a rare instalment of Prime Minister’s Questions where MPs aren’t advertising some sort of charity campaign on their lapels, and today was no exception. But while Theresa May might have been sporting a green ribbon for World Mental Health Day, her government’s waning commitment to the issue was soon exposed by Jeremy Corbyn.
Weaponising the prime minister’s well-received conference speech against her, the Labour leader asked why, if austerity was really over, there were 5,000 fewer mental health nurses since 2010? The prime minister replied unconvincingly that the issue was getting “the attention it needed”. Her words, as they would throughout the session, rang hollow.
Corbyn went on to demonstrate what many Tory MPs believe to be the inherent political danger in May’s declaration that the days of cuts are over. She is encroaching on Labour turf: the reality of her government’s record on public services bears little resemblance to her rhetoric, and this weakness is compounded by Corbyn’s ability to outflank her, whatever the promise.
So it was with opposition leader’s effective line of attack. Corbyn returned to the same refrain. He asked if austerity would end for local government, the police, schools, and people reliant on welfare. Each time, May could only offer a limp defence of the government’s record.
But, as Corbyn demonstrated, that she has signalled that the good times are on their way back undermines her argument. Philip Hammond and Liz Truss, May’s hawkish team at the Treasury, do not share her view that austerity should end. Implicit in the prime minister’s defence of the Tories’ handling of public services is the argument that it doesn’t need to, because things are ticking over just fine. Today’s session underlined just how difficult it will be for May to sell the Conservatives as the party of more spending while defending its record in government.