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One way and another, it’s been a bad seven days for the British government. On Friday, the Windrush scandal broke, and it was revealed that thousands of people who arrived in the UK as children in the first wave of Commonwealth immigration are being threatened with deportation. After a few days of confusion and outrage, Home Office minister Caroline Noakes tried to right the situation, and ended up making matters worse by calling the issue a “myth”.
Then Amber Rudd waded in and let slip that she “didn’t know” if any of the Windrush Generation had been wrongly deported. Staggeringly, she appeared to lay the blame for the problem at the feet of her own civil servants (and, perhaps, her predecessor), telling the House that the “Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy, and sometimes lost sight of the individual.”
While all this was going on, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey casually suggested on Monday that rape victims may benefit from recounting their ordeal in order to claim benefits. Cue, a collective raising of eyebrows across the country.
For a leader of the Opposition who thrives on a reputation for kindliness and feeds off the theory that Tories are evil, heartless, money snatchers, PMQs today should have been a doddle.
And yet somehow – bafflingly – Corbyn managed to come off second best.
It all started well for Labour. To the relief of his backbenchers, Corbyn (who has a penchant for skirting round the main story) seemed to recognise that Windrush was the biggest issue of the day. He went in hard on May, citing the shocking case of Albert Thompson – a man who came to Britain over 50 years ago and has had his cancer treatment withdrawn. May shamefacedly explained to the House that the case has been reviewed and Mr Thompson’s treatment will be resumed immediately. It looked like the beginning of a government walloping.
But Corbyn couldn’t pull it off. After questioning May a little on the cruelty of the net migration target, he switched his focus abruptly to the incompetency aspect of the case. This was a mistake. When asked by the leader of the opposition if the Prime Minister, as Home Secretary in 2010, had signed off on the decision to destroy the landing cards of a generation of Commonwealth citizens, May replied, with remarkable poise “No. the decision to destroy the landing cards was taken in 2009, under a Labour government”.
Even after this mic drop moment, Corbyn could have recovered. Everyone accepts that the landing cards are a bit of a red herring, and anyway, Corbyn is perfectly clear that his Labour has nothing in common with Gordon Brown’s Labour. A brighter, better politician would have immediately pivoted back to callousness. Not Corbyn. Unable to think on his feet he ignored the 180 degrees turn of the debate, and serenely went ahead with his rant about “vital records being destroyed”.
A relieved May was able to end the exchange with a big line on antisemitism, triumphantly aware that she had, somehow, got away with it all, while on the Labour backbenches, an ashen Yvette Cooper sat in stunned, miserable silence.