Conservative position shifts on public sector pay and tuition fees puts the government on the defensive.
June’s election shook up Westminster politics. Against all expectations, Labour gained seats and Jeremy Corbyn began to look like a prime minister in waiting. Two moves in the last few weeks show that Labour is moving forward and the Conservatives are retreating.
First off, the Conservatives announced that they would lift the public sector pay cap for prison and police officers, as reported by the Independent.
Of course, the Tories have not lifted the pay cap for all public-sector workers, in what Jeremy Corbyn has called a “divide and rule” tactic, according City A.M., however, it shows that the Tories are recognising that Labour’s anti-austerity stance is cutting through to the public. Whether the pay cap lift is a genuine desire to help public sector workers or a cynical ploy to stop Labour gaining support, either way, Corbyn’s Labour is forcing the weakened government to make changes.
On top of this, the Sunday Times has reported that Philip Hammond is considering cutting tuition fees in England by £5,000. Again, whether this is a ploy to win votes from 18-25-year-olds or a plan to help students out, it shows that Labour is winning the argument on the matter.
Up until January, voters were more or less equally split on the issue, but confidence in the PM peaked at the start of February after the government introduced the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal Bill). Those confident that Theresa May could deliver the right deal for Britain outweighed the pessimists until a poll at the end of June and start of July which found a split of 34% agree versus 43% disagree.
The next poll (at the start of August) put the split at: 35% agree and 44% disagree.
This new ORB poll puts the gap even wider, suggesting that the public is losing confidence in the prime minister to deliver the right Brexit deal.
In addition, the poll also found that most people disapprove of how Brexit negotiations are going (60% disapprove, 40% disapprove). However, the gap is slightly narrower than it was at the start of August.
On the question of how the UK economy would be after Brexit, 41% said the country would be better off while 39% said they disagreed, suggesting an even split among the voting public.
It also found that most Brits believe that the UK will have more control over immigration post-Brexit (65%), and that the country is divided over whether controlling immigration is more important than access to free trade with the EU. 43% each said they agree that one was more important than the other.
As of publication, there are 559 days until Brexit. The clock is ticking and fast approaching the eighteen-month mark. With Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator saying that UK negotiation demands are “unrealistic”, it is no wonder that confidence in the PM over Brexit is dropping the path to a “right” deal is difficult.
On top of this, there is the question: what is the right deal? A deal that includes firm controls over immigration, but no single market membership and limited access could be seen as the right deal for millions of people, but for others it could be a dramatic change from the status-quo and damage business. A deal that retains single-market membership – even if only in the short-run – would be seen as a kick in the teeth to millions who voted on the basis of ending freedom of movement, but for millions other it could be seen as a pragmatic, sensible Brexit.
The right deal for some will be the wrong deal for others. Theresa May and David Davis must perform a difficult balancing act. A wrong step one way or another could spell an end to their government.
The full results of the latest ORB poll can be accessed Theresa May’s administration is a government in retreat, and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is an opposition waiting to govern. Both of these recent manoeuvres from the government suggest that Labour is forcing the government to change its position. It’s not a perfect retreat, but it points to the fact that Labour is governing from the side-lines.
The question now is: how much of a difference can Labour’s move forward affect the government’s position on Brexit?
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