Labour leader wins parliamentary set-piece comfortably with peroration that was perhaps one of his best
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn start PMQs by congratulating cricketer Alastair Cook on his long career.
Corbyn asks May what the National Farmers’ Union, the Federation of Small Businesses, the National Audit Office, the charity Gingerbread and the Royal Society of Arts have in common? May replies, saying they all give good service and are bodies to which the government listens. Corbyn agrees, but adds they are also telling the government universal credit is flawed and failing hundreds of thousands of people. Corbyn asks if May stands by a government statement that universal credit would lift 350,000 children out of poverty.
May says universal credit was introduced because of the failures left by Labour.
Corbyn continues with universal credit and says constituency MPs know the pain it is causing by creating hardship, and forcing people to use food banks. He says the National Audit Office said this could end up costing the state more.
May responds with a constituency case she remembers when a single mother came to see her when Labour was in office who wanted to work but was told she would be better off on benefits.
Corbyn says he asked about the NAO and says the Trussell Trust says food bank usage is four times higher in areas where the new benefit has been rolled out. He wants to know if the government will ensure people retain the support they need.
May says the government knows work is the best route of out poverty and asks why, if Corbyn thinks universal credit should be changed, Labour voted against the changes?
Corbyn moves on to Brexit. He says the government’s Brexit negotiations are an “abject failure”. He says he can see that from the look on Tory MPs faces – not just the pro-hard Brexit European Research Group lot, but all of them. He says May is not challenging the burning injustices in society, but pouring petrol on the crisis. When will she stop inflicting misery on people?
May responds saying she set up the racial disparities unit. She said no one should be stopped and searched because of the colour of their skin. She says there are 3.3 million more people in jobs. She finishes by asking what have we seen from Labour? Iranian state TV broadcasting a no-confidence motion in a Labour MP. And, “most shamefully of all”, Chuka Umunna saying Labour is now institutionally racist. That is what Corbyn has done for Labour; just think what he would do for this country.
Corbyn nailed it. Despite the challenges posed by facing a PM so obviously on the ropes, he won comfortably, with a peroration that was perhaps one of his best.
In fact, what probably helped a lot was his decision not to try to make mischief with the latest ERG anti-May plotting. (For obvious reasons, backbench opposition to the leadership is not particularly a good topic for Corbyn.)
Instead he focused on universal credit – one of several areas where the government’s public service delivery record is very poor, but where Brexithas led to this receiving less attention than it deserves.
Unusually, but successfully, Corbyn started with a gentle, trick question. After that he piled in with a textbook display of evidence-based questioning, challenging May with robust and serious questions about universal credit and, towards the end, its impact on those currently on disability benefits who are due to migrate to universal credit.
In the circumstances, May put up a pretty spirited defence. She could not really address Corbyn’s questions about whether universal credit was exacerbating poverty (because so many experts say it is), but she was entitled to say that the benefits system under Labour was not perfect and, interestingly, she tried the Corbyn tactic of using first-person stories to defend universal credit. But one anecdote from Roberta cannot counter a stack of statistical evidence from expert organisations.
May responded to Corbyn’s peroration with a half-decent one of her own, although it was very telling that, when she is looking for examples of things she has done to promote social justice, she chose to focus particularly on her time as home secretary and her reforms to stop and search. She has been PM for more than two years now. Is there really nothing better she can cite from her prime ministerial CV?