PMQ Review: October 12, 2016

Four days removed from the U.S. Presidential Debate, this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions reminded us of what it was like to watch members of government debate on actual questions of policy. Many Brits like to complain about the theatrics of PMQs, but at least the BBC wasn’t required to air a “mature audiences only” warning ahead of May and Corbyn’s showdown. That’s more than we can say for the Presidential Race occurring across the pond.

Polls released on Monday suggest the Tories have raced out to a 17 point lead over Labour, despite the fact that the Conservatives are unveiling one of the most unpopular U.K. policies of the last half century. Such a stat should motivate Labour, though at the moment they seem more interested in the game of musical chairs occurring in the Shadow Cabinet than actually fighting against the clown car being driven by Theresa May.

Speaking of May, only a few months into her time at Downing Street, she has taken on the confidence of a multi-year veteran, and is pretending the Brexit vote was actually a mandate on her as Prime Minister. It’s quite interesting to watch someone play with House money, and May’s speeches and actions give the impression of an in-form Harry Kane: when she gets the ball — she shoots, it’s going in whether she hits it cleanly or scuffs it.

Such hubris is dangerous for both sides. Labour faces the damning prospect that the Tories will ride their momentum (pun intended) into a decade or more of government control. Alternatively, the Conservatives may fear an over-confident May could ride off the rails without a second thought. At a 17 point lead, the party tricks have begun. Last week, Labour supporters shuddered as May hinted that the Tories were in fact that champions of the working class. Sometimes the best way to fight a bit of showboating is to get stuck in (I should be clear to our UKIP readers I’m not implying the use of actual violence), and that’s what Labour supporters were hoping for during PMQs this afternoon.

Prostate Plans

One of the more bizarre moments of PMQs occurred near the start, when Mike Fabricant spoke at length about the care he received as he battled prostate cancer. With a chance to simply wish him well and move forward with questioning, Corbyn responded that he hoped all British people could receive this treatment for their medical issues. It was a strange retort, and seemed to suggest that Fabricant received better care because of his status as an MP.

Although on the face no one would disagree with Corbyn’s statement that all British citizens should receive equal access to healthcare, it’s another example of Corbyn’s inability to get out of his own way. Whether it’s his tweets about the Iraqi War on 9/11 or #traingate or any number of other head scratching comments, it’s clear that Corbyn’s biggest enemy is often his ability to turn political tap-ins into howlers . It’s clear he doesn’t wish to change, and it’s perhaps that stubbornness that will cost him during a General Election.

Edit: The following exchange occurred post-PMQs regarding Corbyn’s comments.

Sparring over Brexit

Returning to the dispatch box after what was roundly applauded as his best performance at PMQs on September 14th, Corbyn began his questioning with the topic of foreign worker lists. It was an easy opening given the negative press the government has received following its suggestion that companies should be forced to supply a listing of foreign employees. It was the first of several hard-hitting questions from Corbyn, and May replied that there would be no “naming and shaming,” a clear reversal from Amber Rudd’s speech in Birmingham last week.

Corbyn then shifted to the Brexit negotiations. While the Conservatives have continued to squabble over a “hard Brexit” versus a “soft Brexit,” Corbyn chose to categorize it as a “chaotic Brexit.” It’s a less than subtle move, but an effective one. For years the Tories have used nomenclature and catchphrases to frame the debate on policy. It’s time Labour played by the same rules. Corbyn continued to push May on the fallout from the Brexit vote, associating the Conservative government’s handling of the issue with the fall in the pound and the negative performance of other economic indicators. In his most scathing attack, he stated that the Tories have “no plans, no strategy, no clarity, no transparency or scrutiny of the process. The jobs of millions are at stake, the pound is plummeting, business is worrying, and the government has no answers.”

Critics of Corbyn have often pointed to his failure to push the PM (whether May or Cameron) on their failures related to the Brexit because of his own history of flip-flopping on the issue. Today he pressed the PM at length, and even her staunchest supporters would admit she struggled to respond to Corbyn’s grilling. One can immediately tell when May lacks answers to questions when she returns to her canned statements about the will of the British people. In fairness, it’s a great safety valve, though one has to wonder how many times the British people can listen to the same broken record before rolling their eyes. May’s best line of the day came at the end of her exchange with Corbyn: “I’m optimistic about this country, about trade deals and growth.” It’s a sharp contrast to her opponent who paints an ominous picture of what the country looks like post-Brexit. How long she can tout that line depends greatly on her ministers’ negotiation of Article 50.

Rapier and Sledgehammer

Our rapier of the week goes to Corbyn who, responding to May’s congratulations on re-election as leader of the opposition, quipped, “I’m most grateful to the over 300,000 people who voted for me, which is rather more than voted for her to become leader of her party.” May will always struggle with questions of her mandate as she oversees Brexit without being elected. Strategically, Corbyn is right to remind her at every opportunity.

Our sledgehammer of the week goes to May, who pointed at the Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry and accused her of peddling for a second referendum on Brexit, saying “You can ask the same question again, you’ll still get the same answer,” With nearly half of the U.K. having voted against the Brexit, it was a bit much from May, who will need to be careful not to pigeon-hole herself (especially given she voted Remain).

Theatrics

The chamber was less boisterous today then it has been in week’s past, and the Speaker hardly had to stop proceedings to ensure each side was heard. When asked about whether Parliament would be consulted on the terms of Article 50, May smiled and said she always intended to look to allow the House to ask questions and critique the government’s plans, a comment which was met with laughter. Another moment of sustained murmuring occurred when Lib Dem leader Tim Farron claimed that the nationalists have taken over the Conservative Party and Labour had been taken over by Momentum. By the time he finished his long-winded question, Farron was hardly audible due to the shouting in the background. Perhaps it’s time for a new leader for the Lib Dems.

Final Verdict

The honeymoon period is over for May. Her first few PMQs featured a runaway train of canned quips and jokes about Corbyn’s mandate as leader of the opposition. Now, we’re getting down to the business of Brexit, and on many questions she simply doesn’t have adequate answers. Corbyn’s pressing this week deserves some credit but supporters of Labour continue to question whether their party would be down by 17 points if Tony Blair was squaring off against Theresa May each week at the dispatch box.

Looking past these unfair comparisons, I’m giving this week to Jeremy Corbyn. He was more effective on the issues the British people will care about most, and will need to build on this performance in the weeks to come. It’s a long road back for Labour, but they have some life yet. Theresa May will need to improve after two lackluster performances in a row. Her jokes at the expense of Corbyn have endeared many to her style, but it’ll take more than that to ensure the government survives Brexit.