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Artillery Row

An away win

Can the Conservatives win on “Labour issues” like poverty?

Politicians and their policies come and go, without popular perceptions changing greatly about which party “owns” their core issues. Whatever the reality, it has proved hard to dislodge the notion that the Conservatives are the party of law and order and defence. Tony Blair moved heaven and earth to make Labour the party of war, but it never seemed to impress those who love our armed forces. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher increased public spending on the NHS by almost a third above inflation during her time in office. In terms of political capital, she was wasting our money. We knew it wasn’t where her heart was, and health remained a Labour-owned issue.

And so to poverty, and its amelioration. If asked to name a Tory politician with an unchallenged reputation as a poverty-slayer, much of the public would likely be stumped. Only those with a recollection of old school history textbooks might, after a long pause, come up with the seventh earl of Shaftesbury. He was a fine, upstanding man. But he died in 1885. Whatever the statistics show since then about poverty reduction and the party in office, the popular sentiment is that if poverty is your worry, Labour is your salvation.

Into these safe spaces, Coronavirus has presented the Conservatives with an opportunity that no amount of seasonal flu ever offered. Boris Johnson has permitted the British economy to plunge by a fifth because he instigated a Lockdown designed to “save our NHS.” Faced with this evidence, only voters with beliefs of granite can still uphold the Corbynite general election insistence that the Tories detest the NHS and want to flog it off.

Does any of this massive expansion of the state under the Conservatives grease the tectonic plates of popular perception?

Likewise, how fares the certainty that the Tories, as inveterate shrinkers of the state, can never be trusted to fund welfare state solutions to poverty? In the last three months of protecting businesses, workers and their dependents from the worst sharp recession that records recall, the Conservative government has spent £105 billion on immediate payments, committed £330 billion of liquidity measures and guarantees and has deferred £41 billion of due taxes. As Boris Johnson puts it, “never in our history has the government put its arms around people in the way we are doing now to help them get through this time.” Whatever you think of the man, the figures don’t lie.

Does any of this massive expansion of the state under the Conservatives grease the tectonic plates of popular perception? The chamber of the House of Commons for PMQs is perhaps not the focus group to best test it. But it can give a sense of which side feels increasingly confident on some issues and where a spear is being thrust forward where previously there was only a shield. If sustained for long enough, eventually the shifting confidence on some issues may filter beyond the chamber and to the wider electorate.

With his opening questions, it is the Leader of the Opposition who gets to frame the main theme for PMQs. At this Wednesday’s performance, Keir Starmer majored on poverty and payment shortfalls. The previous day, he had been complaining about how the government’s FCO-DfID merger was a populist ploy to cynically undermine this country’s alleviation of poverty in the developing world. Now he brought this attack closer to home.

In any normal time on this subject, an old Etonian Prime Minister might as well have been replaced by a barrel filled with haddock, so certain would the Labour leader be to shoot and hit with every squeeze of the trigger. Yet, this time none of Sir Keir’s pellets found their mark. Certainly, the government can be criticised for only extending free school meals after the footballer, Marcus Rashford, campaigned for this to happen, but the story nevertheless ends with the government doing it. Starmer also tried to hit another moving U-turn, about the immigration health surcharge refund being made to healthcare workers who had paid the now discontinued fee – but again the reality is that the government is doing it. Slow to do it, shamed into doing it, but doing it all the same. The impact of attack on these subjects is weakened.

When the Labour leader cited projections of rising poverty, the Prime Minister reeled off the unprecedented measures his government is taking to meet the challenge – “eleven million jobs protected by the Coronavirus job retention scheme unlike anything done anywhere else in the world, £30 billion of business loans. And we intend to make sure that we minimise the impact of Coronavirus on the poorest kids in this country and one of the best ways in which we can do that, by the way Mr Speaker, would be to encourage all kids who can go back to school to go back to school now, because their schools are safe. Last week I asked [Keir Starmer] whether he would say publicly that schools were safe to go back to. He hummed and he hawed, now it’s time to say clearly schools are safe to go back to. Mr Speaker,” Johnson turned and gestured at Starmer, “your witness.”

The Labour leader responded that it was PMQs, not Opposition Qs, but for the first time since the two men began facing each other for their Wednesday noon showdowns, Starmer was pushed on to the ropes. Not easily flustered, he was never in any danger of being knocked down and counted out, but when a Labour leader makes poverty his theme only to be made to look like the man without the plan, either Boris Johnson has finally recovered his misplaced chutzpah for this week at least, or desperate circumstances are permitting Tories to stray into previous no go areas. Either way, this episode of PMQs offered anxious Conservatives grounds for hope.

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