Jeremy Corbyn had a good line of attack at today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, choosing to focus on the financial crisis at Northamptonshire Council. When the Labour leader chooses a less-obvious topic, he has the benefit of surprise, but also the disadvantage of appearing to be avoiding talking about something more important. Today, though, Corbyn had also worked out a smart introductory question, which ended with him asking if what was happening at Northamptonshire was down to ‘incompetence at a local level of national level’. This was a difficult question for Theresa May to answer, as it would involve either criticising her own government, or suggesting that Tories weren’t very good at a local level. So she decided to defend the Conservatives’ record in local government, and try to move the discussion on from Northamptonshire.
The session descended into a rather naff one, with both leaders competing over whose Cabinet member with responsibility for local government cared more about councils. Corbyn’s questions deteriorated rather and May’s improved a little, with the Prime Minister managing to expose splits in the Labour Party at a local level, listing the number of Labour local government leaders who have been forced out as a result of campaigns led by Momentum.
Corbyn did have the upper hand, though, as the local government funding issue is a serious one, and Tory backbenchers can get very agitated about it. The Tory MPs in Northamptonshire have backed the abolition of the council and want it replaced with two unitary authorities, but all MPs know that changing local government structures won’t help with one of the biggest problems that councils face, which is funding for social care. There are also other gripes, such as the cost of temporary accommodation, which was raised by Conservative MP Gordon Henderson, and concerns that councils cannot afford to run other essential services such as children’s services any more.
The Labour leader could make this one of the biggest issues in politics in the run-up to the local elections if he chooses. But given his questions rather lost steam today in one session, he’s going to have to work out how to stay the course if he wants to really create some pressure on May.