Jeremy Corbyn spoke for many when he began by asking the prime minister what “ambitious managed divergence” – the approach to Brexit thrashed out last week during the cabinet awayday at Chequers – means in practice.
May replied that the Conservatives would restore Britain’s control of its laws, borders and money, in contrast to Labour’s position of remaining in a customs union, which she described as a “betrayal of the British people”.
Corbyn said 94% of small and medium-sized businesses think the government is ignoring their concerns about Brexit. Who is best at representing the views of businesses: small business groups or Liam Fox? May retorted that the Federation of Small Businesses had said it was behind the government’s trade policy.
To Labour cheers, Corbyn asked May whether the government could clarify which sectors would align with EU regulations and which would diverge. Groaning and telling them to “calm down”, May said she had already set out the position and the Tories were committed to trade going across borders, and there being no hard border.
Corbyn responded that May’s “after-dinner speeches” are no substitute for negotiations. Health and social care in the UK is reliant on migrant workers. Is she not concerned that EU workers are leaving Britain in unprecedented numbers?
May said the most recent immigration figuresshowed more people from the EU are coming into the UK than leaving, and the government has set nursing and GP training places at the highest level.
Corbyn replied that the government has cut the nurse training bursary and does not seem to realise that it takes eight years to train to be a doctor. There are 100,000 NHS vacancies, he said, and those on the benches opposite should “get a life and visit a hospital and see how hard those people work”. He then turned to Boris Johnson’s leaked letter to May about the Irish frontier, which seemed to contradict his assurance that there would be no hard border.
May said the issue of EU nationals had been a key part of the December agreement, there are more nurses on wards than under Labour and if training a doctor takes eight years, Labour were in power eight years ago. May reiterated that the government is “committed to ensuring we deliver on no hard border”.
Corbyn concluded that the government was in disarray, proved by its soundbites: first Brexit means Brexit, then a red, white and blue Brexit, then a liberal Brexit and now ambitious managed divergence. “The government is so divided, the prime minister is incapable of delivering a coherent plan, so when will she put the country’s interest before the outsized egos of her cabinet?”
May said her priority was the British people and the Conservatives were building homes, raising standards in schools and protecting the environment, “as opposed to [a] Labour government that would bankrupt Britain and drag this country down”.
Corbyn’s Brexit speech on Monday clarified the divide between Labour and the Tories on this topic, and this may explain why he sounded more confident than before to tackle May on it. Her attempt to rubbish the new Labour position in response to an early planted question did not quite hit home, and so the Corbyn/May exchanges felt very much like a score draw, shedding little light on policy, but covering quite a lot of ground.
Corbyn’s point about business groups having more credibility on the needs of business than Fox (a doctor before he became an MP) was good and well put, and he was effective too on recruitment vacancies in the NHS. But May had fairly decent responses, and her argument about eight-year timetables for doctor recruitment meant that when she parried Corbyn with a reference to the previous Labour government, for once it sounded as if she had a point.
Corbyn’s best moment probably came when he mocked Boris Johnson, and his best question was the one about how May can square what she is saying now about not having a hard border in Ireland with Johnson’s private letter suggesting that he clearly sees this as an option. But he did not push this charge repeatedly or aggressively, and it ended up feeling like a key attack line that did not get fully exploited.
Jeremy Corbyn responds to a heckle from Boris Johnson about the Irish border with a reference to the foreign secretary’s claims on Tuesday’s Today programme that the two were comparable.
May responds to Corbyn’s claim that the Tories do not have a clue about what small businesses think of their Brexit policy.