In a week that has seen the Conservatives face a barrage of negative headlines (prison reforms, council cuts, the apparent EU omnishambles and Osborne jetting off to the Google-sponsored Super Bowl), Corbyn pretty much could have run with any number of topics. The goal would’ve been pretty much wide open (except if someone brought up Trident. Nobody in Labour wants to bring up the Trident debacle).
Interestingly, while the junior doctors’ strike rumbles on across the country with the firm backing of the public (the latest poll for Ipsos Mori showing two thirds of us supporting them), Corbyn instead dedicated his six questions to the housing crisis.
Opening with a question from “Rosie” (with the predictable, schoolboyish Tory chortling surmising that it may have been Shadow Chief Whip Rosie Winterton who planted the request), Corbyn asked the Prime Minister “what action he was going to take help people… get somewhere safe and secure to live”.
“Call me Dave” took the opportunity to roll off a laundry list of his own policies: cutting taxes, shared ownership, Right to Buy and Help to Buy, and the ISAs associated with these. They, of course, won’t actually solve the housing crisis – but Cameron was more than happy to take the opportunity to spotlight them.
Corbyn then took aim at the Conservatives’ record on home ownership (down by 200,000 since 2010), and asked Cameron how replacing council homes sold under Right to Buy with like-for-like build was “panning out” – and yet again fell into another trap, similar to that of the PM’s blistering attack on the NHS in Wales last week.
“The Last Labour Government” is Cameron’s get-out-of-jail-free phrase of the year and, predictably, he deployed it here, quoting statistics which show that under Labour, just one council home was built for every 170 sold. He then proclaimed that that his Government would ensure that two homes would be built for every one sold – in London. His mention of the capital only was telling, as the Government has made few commitments to social housing building across the rest of the country.
Corbyn attacked the Government over its reduction in Housing Benefit and the closure of supported housing, with Cameron responding that “[housing benefit] was completely out of control when we came to Government… with families in London getting £100,000 of housing benefit” (tritely ignoring the fact that this goes into the pockets of private landlords – of which 27 per cent of Tory MPs are).
Corbyn also quoted statistics showing that an estimated half of supported housing will close in the next five years, which Cameron dismissed as coming from an “opinion poll”, and using this as a tactic to avoid answering the question.
As he proudly announced an £8 billion budget for “400,000 affordable homes”, however, Cameron exposed his own weakness: “affordability” no longer has an objective meaning, and is defined completely differently even according to where in the UK a person lives. This fact hung in the air as he failed to quite shake Corbyn’s criticisms on housing.
Corbyn’s final two questions were by far the strongest, using Shelter statistics to hammer home the severe issue surrounding the shady way in which some private landlords still can operate in the UK. This was expertly backed up by the reminder that Conservatives rejected a move in the Housing Bill to ensure all privately rented properties were “fit for human habitation”. This somewhat took the wind out of Cameron’s sails.
At this point, Cameron went back to his familiar “stronger economy” tune – something which, in the light of the ONS figures on our widening trade deficit, rings even more hollow than ever. He also took a desperate swipe at “The Last Labour Government’s” record on homelessness (ignoring the fact it has risen 55 per cent since 2010), and finished with the usual banal flourish about the “mess we inherited”. One does have to wonder at what point Cameron will realise he’s been at the helm for over five years now.
Today’s PMQs showed an interesting shift from the dynamics of last week. While Corbyn was noticeably more “fired up”, stuttering on occasions, dropping his notes and seemingly mimicking Cameron’s penchant for developing a rosy-cheeked and passionate demeanour, he failed to deliver any knock-out blows to Cameron. He did, however, often leave him with enough conversational rope to sometimes hang himself with, all the while subtly referencing junior doctors with his “Heart Unions” badge.
Cameron – 7/10. An improvement on last week, but please give up “Last Labour Government” for Lent along with your dodgy statistics.
Corbyn – 6/10. Must learn to plant more blows on the actual targets – especially when the landscape is littered with them.