UK Politics

PMQs comes to life in welfare row

BY Finn McRedmond   /  12 September 2018

The second PMQs since recess ended was, for want of a better word, shouty.

An irate Jeremy Corbyn nearly managed to get under Theresa May’s skin, leaving her looking furious by the end of their 15-minute exchange.

Despite neither being famous for their parliamentary clout, both outperformed their expectations today making for an unusually exciting PMQs.

The subject of Brexit was conspicuous by its absence, receiving only a cursory mention alongside Corbyn’s main line of questioning, which zeroed in on Universal Credit – the new and complicated benefit programme which has undergone some teething problems, to put it mildly, since its introduction.

Corbyn kicked off with something resembling an ill-conceived riddle: “What do the National Farmers’ Union, the Federation of Small Businesses, the National Audit Office, the National Housing Federation, Gingerbread and the Royal Society of Arts all have in common?”

The PM responded with reference to their “excellent service” to those “whose ideas they represent.”

Not quite; they have all said that Universal Credit is flawed and failing people both in and out of work, Corbyn said.

Corbyn then embarked on a sustained attack on the Universal Credit system, quoting The Child Poverty Action Group who say the policy will increase the number of children in poverty by half a million.

In retaliation, May reached for some half-baked anecdotes from those who say that Universal Credit is encouraging them to get into work, and emphasised that as the central aim of both her party and the policy.

There was the dreary to-ing and fro-ing that has become all too characteristic of May and Corbyn’s parliamentary style: Corbyn points to stats about child poverty and May counteracts with reference to failings of former Labour governments. As BBC Political Editor Laura Kuennsberg put it: they engage in parallel conversations rather than in the substance of what the other is saying.

This time however the backdrop to their less than inspiring style was proper braying and shouting from both sides of the chamber, requiring Speaker of The House John Bercow to intervene multiple times.

As proceedings continued the chamber became ever more heated, culminating in a genuinely impassioned monologue from Corbyn: “One million families using food banks, one million workers on zero hour contracts, four million children in poverty, wages lower today than ten years ago, and on top of that there’s the flawed and failing universal credit.”

“The Prime Minister is not challenging the burning injustices in our society, she’s pouring petrol on the crisis.”

May responded with reference to the Conservatives’ anti-racist policies: “… that nobody in this country should be stopped and searched on our streets because of the colour of their skin, that was me as Home Secretary, never the Labour Party.”

In her last dig at Corbyn she used that policy to stand in sharp relief to the “institutionally racist party” that Labour has become: “that’s what he’s done to Labour, just think what he’d do to this country.”

Neither were spectacular, they never are, but it was a relief to see the drama revolve around issues that aren’t Brexit. Theresa May remained basically unflustered by Corbyn, but failed to deliver any powerful objections to his points. Corbyn, on the other hand, hadn’t quite honed his questioning, leading to rambling that diluted his message.

The final verdict? Too much shouting. Please, can everyone stop shouting.