This story about a Tory-held council dropping plans for a 15 per cent tax hike after talks with the government exploded in the Prime Minister’s face today – when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn read out a series of leaked emails suggesting a corrupt deal had taken place.
Mr Corbyn started his inquiry gently, asking what advice Mrs May had for councils like Liverpool that are struggling to shoulder their share of a £4.6 billion cut in the social care budget. Liverpool’s adult social care director, Samih Kalakeche, resigned earlier this week, saying he did not expect social services to survive more than two years.
Mrs May tried to fob him off with a dig at the NHS in Wales, where Labour runs the health service, but Mr Corbyn replied:
My question was about the comments from Samih Kalakeche in Liverpool and why the people of Liverpool are having to suffer these great cuts. Liverpool has asked to meet the Government on four occasions.
The crisis is so bad that until yesterday David Hodge, the Conservative leader of Surrey County Council, planned to hold a referendum for a 15% increase in council tax. At the last minute, it was called off. Can the Prime Minister tell the House whether or not a special deal was done for Surrey?
Again, Mrs May tried to fob him off, saying the decision on whether to hold a referendum in Surrey is entirely for the local authority. And this would have been all very well if it had been true.
It wasn’t true, though.
Back to Mr Corbyn:
My question was whether there had been a special deal done for Surrey. The leader said that they had had many conversations with the Government. We know they have, because I have been leaked copies of texts sent by the Tory leader, David Hodge, intended for somebody called “Nick” who works for Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government. One of the texts reads:
“I am advised that DCLG officials have been working on a solution and you will be contacting me to agree a memorandum of understanding.”
Will the Government now publish this memorandum of understanding, and while they are about it, will all councils be offered the same deal?
Leaked copies of texts intended for ‘Nick’ led inevitably to the incident being labelled ‘Nickileaks’ by Laura Kuenssberg and Andrew Neil on the BBC’s Daily Politics, where the controversy was discussed immediately after Prime Minister’s Questions.
Mrs May again tried to deflect the question by saying the Tories have given all councils the opportunity to raise a three per cent precept on council tax to cover social care. Then she tried to suggest that Surrey’s sudden decision that it didn’t need to raise council tax by 15 per cent after all was about spreading best practice and finding a sustainable solution. Mr Corbyn was having none of it.
I wonder if this has anything to do with the fact that the Chancellor and the Health Secretary both represent Surrey constituencies.
There was a second text from the Surrey County Council leader to “Nick”. It says:
“The numbers you indicated are the numbers I understand are acceptable for me to accept and call off the R”.
I have been reading a bit of John le Carré and apparently “R” means “referendum”—it is very subtle, all this. He goes on to say in his text to “Nick”:
“If it is possible for that info to be sent to myself I can then revert back soonest, really want to kill this off”.
So, how much did the Government offer Surrey to “kill this off”, and is the same sweetheart deal on offer to every council facing the social care crisis created by this Government?
It seems that, in order to avoid having to ask voters in Surrey whether they would accept a huge rise in council tax, the council’s leader had arranged a business agreement with the government. Was money set to change hands in what Mr Corbyn described as a “sweetheart” deal? If so, he was certainly right to ask why such a deal was only available to a Tory-held council like Surrey and not to a Labour council like Liverpool – and This Site was right to suggest possible government corruption in the report on this matter yesterday (February 7).
By now, Mrs May was flailing. In desperation, she reached out for a comment made recently by representatives of her new friend, Donald Trump: “The right hon. Gentleman comes to the Dispatch Box making all sorts of claims. Yet again, what we get from Labour is alternative facts; what it really needs is an alternative leader.”
Still no answers from her, then – just an ad hominem attack on Mr Corbyn, who ended with a recap:
My question was, what deal was offered to Surrey that got it to call off a referendum, and will the same deal be offered to every other council going through a social care crisis?
Mrs May wouldn’t – or couldn’t – answer, so she responded with another attack on Labour that misfired badly: “As ever, he stands up and consistently asks for more spending, more money, more funding. What he always fails to recognise is that you can spend money on social care and the national health service only if you have a strong economy to deliver the wealth that you need.”
Twitter provided an immediate response:
— Rickest Of Ricks (@RickestOfRicks) February 8, 2017
Apparently it’s strong whenever Mrs May wants to talk about what Tories want to do, and weak whenever she’s discussing Opposition appeals for action.
Mrs May also attacked Mr Corbyn on the basis that he would borrow money that he intended to spend – an unfortunate choice of words for a prime minister whose party has nearly tripled the national debt:
— YorksLass (@ChrissieOAP) February 8, 2017
In a statement issued after the Prime Minister’s Questions dispute, Surrey Council leader David Hodge said: “Surrey’s decision not to proceed with a 15% council tax increase was ours alone and there has been no deal between Surrey County Council and the government.
“However, I am confident that the government now understands the real pressures in adult social care and the need for a lasting solution.”
That’s all very well, but Labour has released the text exchange between Mr Hodge and the mysterious ‘Nick’:
As you can see, Mr Hodge’s name is very firmly attached to the messages.
Not only was this a major PMQs victory for Mr Corbyn – at a time when some have been speculating on his possible resignation! – but it is a catastrophe for Theresa May because it undermines any integrity the Conservative Government may have.
If it is offering “sweetheart” deals to Tory councils but not to Labour authorities, then any claim to “One Nation” rule is forfeited, as is – indeed – any claim to fairness on any level whatsoever. And the Conservatives have staked their future on claims of fairness.
You can bet that the Conservative Party is scrambling to find a way to defuse this situation.
When the response comes, it will need to be a lot better than Mr Hodge’s statement.
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