May's New U.K. Government to Face First Test on Austerity

  • Labour amendment seeks pay rise for police, firefighters
  • Commons vote will test strength of Conservative-DUP alliance

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U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will face the first key test of her new minority government’s power as opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn challenges Tory lawmakers over austerity. 

In the wake of the inferno at a London high-rise apartment building this month that’s believed to have killed 79 people and a wave of terrorist attacks in Britain, Corbyn will put forward a motion in Parliament demanding an end to years of cuts to public services.

“You can’t have safety and security on the cheap,” Corbyn said in a statement suggesting austerity could be partly to blame for the recent tragedies. “It is plain to see that seven years of cuts to our emergency services has made us less safe. It’s time to make a change.”

Labour will put the motion to a vote during a debate on May’s program for government, outlined last week by Queen Elizabeth II in her traditional speech opening the new session of the U.K. Parliament. The vote, due Wednesday evening in London, will be the first such test for May since she lost her majority in the House of Commons in the general election on June 8.

It comes just two days after her government signed a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to support the Conservatives in key votes and keep the party in power. Although unlikely, a defeat at this stage would spell disaster for May and would lead to renewed calls for her to resign, and potentially fresh elections.

There were fresh signs of divisions within her Cabinet over the best approach to Brexit on Tuesday. Brexit Secretary David Davis accused Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond of taking inconsistent positions on whether the U.K. should seek a bridging deal, which could mean remaining in the customs union for years after Britain’s due to quit.

“What he’s actually said, the most important thing is it’s got to be done before the election so that’s a maximum of three years,” Davis added, insisting the two ministers were “entirely aligned” in their thinking on the length of any transition.

Having fought an election focused on Brexit, some of May’s Tory colleagues believe Corbyn’s unexpected success in the election was due to growing public opposition to austerity. The British Social Attitudes Survey, published Wednesday, showed the highest proportion of people in more than a decade saying they wanted to see higher taxes to pay for higher spending on health, education and welfare.

May’s Conservative Party said in a statement that it had protected police budgets, while the number of fires had fallen by half in the past 10 years. “But the truth is you can’t fund your emergency services without a growing, healthy economy which only Conservatives in government will deliver,” the Tories said. 

— With assistance by Robert Hutton

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