Theresa May should have had a rather difficult Prime Minister’s Questions today. Jeremy Corbyn chose to lead on the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and then moved onto rough sleeping. Both matters are vulnerabilities for May, and ones Corbyn has consistently made a great deal of noise about.
But there were two flaws in Corbyn’s approach which allowed May to have one of her strongest sessions as Prime Minister. The first was that of course she had guessed the Labour leader was most likely to lead on Saudi Arabia, and so she turned up well-prepared to offer a robust defence of Britain’s ties with the Kingdom. She also accused Corbyn of ‘mansplaining’ by telling her when International Women’s Day was, before saying:
‘The link that we have with Saudi Arabia is historic, it is an important one, and it has saved, it has saved the lives of potentially hundreds of people in this country and can I say that actually the fact that it is an important link is not just the view that I hold. The Shadow Foreign Secretary this morning said ‘our relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one. She also went on to say that doesn’t mean we should be pulling our punches and I agree, that’s why I will be raising concerns about human rights with the Crown prince when I meet him.’
Her answers continued in this vein until Corbyn lost interest, and switched to rough sleeping. This is an area that Labour is rightly probing the government on. As the Labour leader said, rough sleeping estimates have rocketed by 169 per cent. The problem is that it isn’t entirely clear whether Corbyn himself actually understands the causes of rough sleeping, or indeed how the various agencies trying to deal with it actually work.
His questions became long and rambling, and allowed Theresa May to made her slightly tedious commentary on the quality of Corbyn’s performance. They also included references to unoccupied buildings and the housing crisis, which is certainly a factor in rough sleeping as those trying to get off the streets find themselves in a rental market with high costs that their housing benefit cannot cover, and where landlords are frequently unwilling to let to benefit claimants full stop.
But this isn’t the first time that Corbyn has conflated homelessness and rough sleeping: his policy is to buy 8,000 vacant properties to house homeless people to tackle rough sleeping. Homelessness and rough sleeping are not one and the same thing, though the former can lead to the latter. Corbyn’s policies are entirely well-meaning, but they may not help the people he refers to. Similarly, he made a well-meaning reference to the homeless people he had met who are begging just to get enough money for a night shelter, when most London night shelters are either free or charge a nominal fee of around £2-5. May found this reasonably easy to answer and was therefore able to dodge Corbyn’s important questions about cuts to homelessness services.
As we often point out on Coffee House, Corbyn is getting better at PMQs, but he seems unlikely to develop the instinct necessary to get the government on the ropes even on pretty easy issues such as the ones he raised today.