Poor Jezza. The Labour leader had a decent showing today but he was outgunned by Mrs May who performed with astonishing prickliness and aggression. Mr Corbyn claimed that Universal Credit has forced millions onto the bread-line. The PM countered that reform was vital. She cited a young mum in Maidenhead who’d been advised to skive, not work because benefits paid more. The advice came from the Job Centre.
The PM received an unexpected stroke of fortune. One of Mr Corbyn’s ploys is to recite weepy letters from constituents whom he identifies, rather like lost puppies in need of a good home, by their first names only. For once, Mrs May was armed with her own collection partisan missives. And the Labour leader unwittingly gave her the perfect cue. He summarised a civil service report criticising Universal Credit, and then threw its findings at her.
‘Does she dispute her own government’s survey? Or the experience of the claimants?’
Mrs May simply read out her epistles which were all love-letters to Universal Credit. A woman called ‘Roberta’ thanked UC for helping her to get ‘a dream job.’ ‘Brian’ praised a Work Coach who had found him a zingy new career within days. And ‘Nayeem’ admired the system’s flexibility for allowing him to do overtime without losing benefit. Egalitarians noted that Mrs May’s range of witnesses – a woman, a man and an ethnic minority – met all the government’s diversity targets.
Mr Corbyn was hindered, as always, by Dawn Butler, his equalities spokesperson. She sits beside him at PMQs emitting a stream of tuts and gasps aimed at the Tories.
‘No!’ ‘Shocking’. ‘Unbelievable.’ ‘Caw!’ ‘Terrible.’ ‘AWFUL!’ ‘Phawph!’
Ms Butler may not be aware that the Commons microphones pick up her sound-track of disapproval and broadcast it to the nation. It sounds like the sad chirrupings of a park-bench loner who hasn’t taken her meds.
Ian Blackford made a short speech full of inflammatory accusations. ‘She has abandoned millions,’ he huffed, ‘her party is unfit to govern’. Fiery materials but flatly delivered. He was like an alderman presenting the Traffic Warden of the Year Award.
The Brexiteers and Chequers-wreckers maintained a strict silence today. From the backbenches, Mrs May was supported by a chamber orchestra of greasers and wannabes who asked her easy-peasy questions about Brexit. These biddable MPs were all male, all under 50, all smoothly groomed and squeaky-clean. You’d never have guess that each of them has been looking at a future PM in the shaving mirror ever since he first picked up a razor.
Jack Lopresti asked about Airbus and Mrs May wished the firm every success in generating jobs and apprenticeships. Chris Philp mentioned the £39 billion jail-break bill. And Mrs May – who once said ‘governments have no money of their own’ – indicated that the Tories were ready to pay up. But without an exit-deal, she warned, ‘the position changes.’
This was Bad Cop from Mrs May. Then Good Cop.
Alan Mak quoted the warm words of Jean-Claude Juncker who has said that post-Brexit Britain will always be more than a ‘third party’ to the EU. Mrs May answered this directly, with the word, ‘You,’ as if Mr Juncker were seated opposite her at the negotiating table. ‘You,’ she said, appearing to meet his glazed eyes through the bottles of Evian and gin, ‘will never be an ordinary third party for us.’
Silly Question of the Day came from Melanie Onn who told us that ‘40 percent’ of her Grimsby constituency ‘don’t have enough to live on.’ Which suggests they’ll all be lying in a mass-grave by Bonfire Night. Mrs May said there are worse fates than starving to death on Humberside. Mr Corbyn could become PM.
Katy Balls and Isabel Hardman discuss PMQs on our Facebook Live here