Prime Minister’s Questions this afternoon was all about money, money, money as the two party leaders clashed ahead of the Budget due next week. Keir Starmer emphasised many of the lines we saw in his speech on the economy last week, accusing the Tories of having “spent a decade weakening the foundations of our economy and our country” – leaving the UK especially vulnerable when the pandemic hit – and arguing that the Conservative approach to the pandemic has shown that low-paid workers are bottom of Boris Johnson’s list of priorities.
The Labour leader turned first to self-isolation. Why won’t the government expand the £500 payment scheme for those ordered to stay at home? Even Tory peer Dido Harding leading on contract tracing has made clear the need for this move. Starmer raised figures showing many told to self-isolate are simply not doing so as they just cannot afford to. “If you need £500 to isolate, you’re out of luck,” he told MPs. “If you’ve got the Health Secretary’s WhatsApp, you get a million pound contract.”
He next moved on to councils, which are at this very moment taking the tough decision to raise council tax after the government broke its promise to do ‘whatever it takes’ to support their spending in the crisis and after a £15bn cut to their budgets over the past ten years. The Labour leader pointed out that Johnson’s own local Conservative-run borough has decided to do so. Are they wrong, he asked the PM? “I’m not blaming councils,” Starmer added. “They’ve been starved of funding for a decade and Labour and Conservative councils are in the same position.”
Starmer hit his stride towards the end of the session. He stressed to those watching that the Budget represents a choice and that the Conservatives offer only a “return to business as usual”. He called on Johnson to use the opportunity to give a pay rise to key workers, “protect families” and to support business by backing his call to boost funding to create 100,000 new start-ups over the next five years. The PM’s response: “Mr Speaker, if you’ll only wait until next week I think you’ll find we’ll do far more than that paltry agenda that he’s set out.”
The danger for Starmer is that this Tory administration has shown itself adept at bucking expectations. The Labour leader told the public last week that the pandemic has changed what people expect the government to do. Johnson and Rishi Sunak will no doubt have noticed this as well. Starmer’s speech last week remained fairly light in policy proposals, perhaps understandably as we’re years out from a general election. He has begun to outline a vision but Labour remains open to the threat posed by a government that talks about investing in the economy. Starmer has begun to outline a vision but Labour remains open to the threat posed by a government that talks about investing in the economy. And this is not to say we expect a big state, public-spending-packed announcement in the Budget next week. But Tory claims to be anti-austerity, pro-investment do not need to be genuine in order to work politically.