The leaders played austerity tug-of-war at PMQs today. Is it over yet? Yes it is, said Theresa May. Not for years, said Jeremy Corbyn. Back and forth they went. Eventually they’d swung around 180 degrees and swapped positions. Corbyn seemed to want more austerity. May seemed thrilled that it was finished – a policy that Corbyn has long called for. But, he asked, isn’t the social security budget due to shrink by a further £5bn?
‘Yes or no?’
The PM ignored this and asked him about tax-cuts for higher earners announced in Monday’s Budget.
‘Will you vote for them?’
Tricky for Corbyn. If he opposes the cuts he penalises millions. If he accepts them he’ll be condemned as a far-right, tax-slashing, hug-a-millionaire class-traitor. A hurricane of jeers and catcalls from gloating Tories swept over Corbyn as he stood up to answer.
‘Are you done yet? he snarled, with his road-rage face. He demanded that the PM apologise for promising and failing to end austerity. Then, rather casually, he mentioned May’s vow to correct ‘burning injustices.’
‘That fizzled out well, didn’t it,’ he said, to approving Labour titters.
Wow. That was a mistake. The PM rose slowly and gave him her full Narnia death-stare. Her blood seemed to chill to below zero. Dry ice was swirling around her ankles. Even the TV lights were frosting over. When she spoke, her voice splintered with fury. Had Labour passed an anti-slavery bill? Had Labour introduced a racial disparity audit? Had Labour protected those facing a crisis in their mental health? The ballistics were pure Thatcher. The anger was her own.
Arch-Brexiteer Peter Bone delivered a speech – not a question – that will intrigue students of gamesmanship. He garlanded his foe, Philip Hammond, with oddly-worded praise.
‘I always thought the chancellor was a bit iffy on Brexit,’ he said. ‘But he could be the King of Brexit.’
What did that mean? Something, clearly. Talk of a coronation is apt to flatter, and therefore to boost, the ambitions of the chancellor. But by hinting that he might seize the prize, Bone is also imperilling him by putting him at the head of the chasing pack. Early leaders falter first.
Gillian Keegan had alarming news from Chichester. At a recent pow-wow with headteachers, she learned that ‘every single one of them’ had been violently assaulted by a pupil or parent. And these were primary schools. If five-year-olds in the Home Counties are mounting jiu-jitsu attacks on their teachers then more cash is urgently needed. Body armour is next. Robocop staff teaching boiler-suited children tethered to their desks in classrooms ringed with electric fences and watch-towers.
The Labour member for Ynys Môn, Albert Owen, hailed May for her famous forced marches through the glacier-etched valleys of Snowdonia. ‘These mountain-walks inspire her decisions,’ he said. ‘Such as the 2017 General Election.’
May winced. And everyone laughed at her. But their mockery is based on ignorance. If you ascend the steep forest path between Tal-y-Llyn and Dolgellau you’ll understand her decision. There are landslides everywhere.