Isabel Hardman

How councils in crisis could open up an important Tory leadership battleground

How councils in crisis could open up an important Tory leadership battleground
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One of the issues that should crop up in this Tory leadership contest is local government funding. True, it's not a particularly enticing matter, but Conservative MPs are generally very worried about the state of their local councils.

Today's BBC story on 11 authorities which could exhaust their reserves within four years underlines this worry. The Beeb used analysis by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance to work out which councils the organisation had listed - anonymously - as being most at risk. The Local Government Association is warning that councils will have to further cut back services and that 'ongoing funding gaps are simply too big to be plugged by reserves'.

Of course, this also affects the debate about social care, with councils already struggling to fund its provision. But it's less likely that anyone with an eye on the top job is going to want to talk about that, given how disastrous the 2017 Tory manifesto commitment on that matter was.

Some of the more One Nation-minded Tories plan to push those standing on whether they will commit to more funding for local authorities, which will open up another interesting diving line in the contest over tax. As I reported in the Guardian on Monday, those 'moderate' MPs are quite comfortable with putting taxes up in order to pay for better public services. This doesn't sound very naturally Conservative, and will spark a battle with those more economically dry Tories who already think their party is behaving in far too left-wing a fashion when it comes to the size of the state. But some leadership contenders have previously made the case for this: when he was pushing for a spending increase for the NHS, Jeremy Hunt told the Cabinet that most Tory voters were more interested in having a decent and secure old age where they'd be treated well in a hospital than they were in tax levels. He and other candidates may well come under pressure in this contest to make the same case for other public services.