LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government on Wednesday defeated its first parliamentary challenge since a disastrous election earlier this month, in a vote on whether to maintain increasingly unpopular austerity measures.
The amendment was defeated by 323 votes to 309, reflecting the new landscape in parliament where the Conservatives now need the backing of Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative DUP party, after losing their majority in this month’s snap election.
The Conservatives had expected to increase their majority in the election, but left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn energised voters with an offer of increased public sector investment.
With 317 of the 650 seats in parliament, the Conservatives now need to be supported by the DUP’s 10 MPs.
May’s deal with the DUP has itself raised questions about austerity, after the government promised £1 billion (1.1 billion euros, $1.3 billion) in new funding for the province in order to secure the DUP’s support.
Labour introduced the amendment Wednesday to the Queen’s Speech — the government’s legislative agenda — calling for an end to the pay cap and cuts to the police and fire service budgets.
Ahead of the vote, Corbyn claimed austerity played a part in the blaze at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in London earlier this month, in which 79 people are presumed dead.
The external cladding is thought to have fuelled the flames, and tests on 120 similarly-tiled high-rises have all failed fire safety tests.
In a Commons debate with May, Corbyn highlighted budget cuts to fire services and local authorities, which are responsible for inspecting buildings.
“What the Grenfell Tower tragedy has exposed is the disastrous effect of austerity,” he said.
Public attitudes shift
The annual British Social Attitudes survey, published Wednesday by the National Centre for Social Research, suggests attitudes towards austerity are shifting.
The survey of almost 3,000 people found 48 percent want higher taxes to finance more public spending — the highest level in more than a decade.
A senior Labour source said the government’s shift on public sector pay was “very encouraging” and urged Conservative MPs to back its amendment.
Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, sources close to May signalled an easing of austerity could soon be on the card.
“We understand people are weary after years of hard work to rebuild the economy,” a senior source in May’s Downing Street office said.
“We’re working through and looking at the recommendations from the pay review bodies that are coming in.”
But Downing Street later sought to downplay those comments, insisting instead that its policy had not changed.
Around five million workers employed in local authorities, schools, hospitals and job centres have seen their wages fall in real terms following two years of a pay freeze and four years with salaries capped at a below-inflation one percent.
But Labour wants to force the government to publicly defend public spending cuts, with an eye on the prospect of another election if May cannot hold on.
The prime minister called the snap June 8 election to strengthen her hand going into Brexit negotiations, but lost her majority, and with it, much of her authority. AFP