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PMQs verdict: Corbyn hits May’s achilles heel with NHS zinger

After opening with Albert Thompson case, Corbyn finishes off with Stephen Hawking quote
This week’s PMQs focused on the NHS, with Jeremy Corbyn emphasising Stephen Hawking’s passionate support for the health service to challenge Theresa May on the government’s NHS record. After condemning vile messages sent to Muslim MPs and the rise in Islamophobia, the Labour leader paid tribute to Hawking, saying he helped our understanding of the universe. The physicist was also a passionate campaigner for the NHS and backed universal healthcare.
Referencing the Guardian’s story about Albert Thompson, Corbyn asked how it was possible that someone who had lived and worked in the UK for decades was denied access to healthcare.
May said the government wanted to ensure treatments were as good as they could be but added that she was not aware of this case. She promised to look into it if Corbyn sent her details.
May said that on cancer treatment there was more diagnostic tests taking place and more people were receiving treatment. She said patients should get the right treatment.
Corbyn pivoted to A&E performance, saying February was the worst month for missing targets. He quoted a doctor saying the NHS needed the right long-term settlement. So why didn’t it get extra money in Tuesday’s spring statement?
May said she did not wait until Tuesday to announce more money; more was announced in the autumn budget.
Corbyn said under Labour the 18-week target for non-urgent operations was in place. That had been abandoned. When would it be reinstated?
May said Corbyn should look at what Labour did in Wales. In Wales, 3.4% of patients waited more than 12 hours, which was higher than in England.
Corbyn told May not to “scaremonger” about Wales when the targets had been abandoned in England. People’s lives were at stake, he said. Was May saying doctors and health unions were wrong, and only she knows best?
May said she was pointing out the facts about Wales. That was why Welsh people try to get treatment in England. She said the government was putting more money into the NHS. You need a strong economy for that, she added. Labour would crash the economy.
Corbyn said May should ensure the NHS had the money it needed now to meet patient demands. Staff deserved proper leave and proper funding. When there were 100,000 unfilled posts, there was a problem. He quoted Stephen Hawking saying the number of NHS staff was inadequate and was getting worse. Did she agree?
May said there were more staff working in the NHS. Why did the government do that? Because of what happened under Labour in Mid-Staffordshire. Labour would increase the debt, and that would lead to higher taxes. Ordinary people would pay the price.
Job well done for Corbyn. The NHS is the government’s biggest vulnerability (among many), there is a growing consensus (including among much of the cabinet, reportedly) that it needs extra funding, and it’s a Labour issue. Corbyn should be able to win easily here, and he did.
His first question was very, very effective, and May’s briefing team let her down badly by not giving her anything to say about the case of Albert Thompson. And Corbyn’s final question, quoting Hawking, was a classic PMQs zinger because May could not answer it at all (which is why she did not really try). In the middle he was a bit more scattergun and unfocused, but that didn’t really matter.
May was resilient, but she relied almost entirely on her stock NHS answers (Wales, and the threat of Labour crashing the economy), which today sounded even more hackneyed than usual. And she also sounded too much as if she did not care (an impression heightened by her decision to make a pedantic procedure point about Corbyn’s letter writing). But the main problem, as always at PMQs, was substance: she needs a message on the NHS that is solid, new and attractive, and she hasn’t got one.