Theresa May needed to play a blinder today. But she left herself looking heartless and complacent. Jeremy Corbyn attacked her on the Universal Credit system which seems as useful as a windmill on the moon. He said UC was leading to ‘debt, poverty and homelessness.’ Mrs May replied that tremendous improvements had been achieved since January. Only 20 per cent of initial payments are late, she trumpeted, (although she used the formula ’80 percent are on time’).
Corbyn asked about delays twice more, and Mrs May’s patience dissolved. She did a little pantomime of being bored. Her eyes glazed over. Her chin tilted upwards. Her focus went into the middle-distance. A short breath was sucked in over her lower teeth. ‘I did actually refer to this in my previous answer, had the Rt Hon gentleman listened to it,’ she said.
This little show of huffiness was well done, in itself, but strategically it was dangerous. The PM has just crashed the plane. She certainly hasn’t earned the right to treat PMQs as a bit of a faff. She ought to give it 110 per cent, (as Diane Abbott would say). And her petulant shrug led her into an error. Corbyn’s next question was about the fees imposed on callers using the benefits helpline. He begged the PM to scrap this unjust tax on the needy. Mrs May barely noticed. ‘We continue,’ she parroted, ‘to look at the way we monitor the service.’ The helpline charges 55p per minute to benefit-seekers just for requesting help. The government seems to be profiteering from the destitute. But could Mrs May care? Scarcely. She spoke like a waitress reciting the ‘specials’ menu.
Gareth Snell revealed an injustice inflicted on a disabled constituent. The man’s benefits had been withheld for six months, but then restored to him a few days after he had died. Is there a worse example of bureaucratic effrontery? The state hastens an invalid into an early grave and then says ‘sorry, bit of a cock-up,’ to his grieving relatives. Gareth Snell asked what specific message Mrs May would give to the man’s widow. Instead of expressing shock or contrition, she said: ‘We offer, obviously, our condolences at the death of her partner.’ (His name, Jeffrey, had failed to register with her.) ‘And we are working to ensure there is a greater consistency in the judgments that are originally given.’
Conservatism is sometimes portrayed as a theocracy that scourges the underclass for the sin of being poor. Instead of undermining that impression, Mrs May gave it colour and flavour. She embodied it. Not a good day at the office. Peter Bone asked for clarity on the Brexit timetable. He fears that thumb-twiddling Eurocrats will deliberately stall the talks and then demand an extension to the two-year chit-chat period. Mrs May told him his anxieties were groundless.
They aren’t. Brussels loves a war of attrition against democracy. Rejected treaties are regularly sent back to the electorates that spurned them. Even now there must be squads of EU Gollums concocting schemes to capsize Brexit. The ‘March 2019’ deadline looks solid enough but only to mortal eyes. The EU is far mightier than mere human chronology, and it could easily commission a tame historian to discover that Christ was really born in 20 BC, giving us two more decades in the Ponzi scheme. Don’t put it past them.