UK Parliament/parliamentary copyright.
After an all-too-short respite PMQs is back, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came out fighting.
A week ago, Theresa May addressed Tory Party conference, rounding off with the lofty statement: “A decade after the financial crash people need to know the austerity it led to is over.”
Corbyn kicked off today with reference to this, naturally. And it provided fertile ground for him to attack not only the Conservatives’ legacy, but also the legitimacy of May’s claims at conference. He rattled through the obvious points: the NHS, the police, underfunded schools, crisis-hit Conservative councils in Northamptonshire and Somerset. His stats were convincing, as were May’s rebuttals. The difference though is that Corbyn’s attacks were presented in punchy social-media friendly soundbites, whereas May’s counters sounded like the work of a civil servant who doesn’t understand the importance of popular appeal.
“The prime minister declared she is ending austerity but unless the budget halts the cuts, increases funding for public services and gives our public servants a decent pay rise, then isn’t the claim that austerity is over simply a great big Conservative con?” Corbyn shouted. It’s a good line, but this is easy territory for Corbyn.
May’s most memorable line lacked the same impact: “People need to know their hard work is paying off. Yes, better times are ahead – under a Conservative government.”
She seemed far less confident in her statements on austerity than she did last week at Tory conference, but that’s to be expected when instead of pleasing a crowd of already-card-carrying Tories this time she was facing a genuinely irate leader of the opposition.
The most notable interaction today centred on mental health (in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Day). How can austerity be over, Corbyn asked, when there are 5,000 fewer mental health nurses than in 2010?
The Tories are spending “record levels” on mental health and today announced the first minister for suicide prevention, May responded. And while there is more work to be done the government has for the first time ensured “parity of esteem for mental and physical health” in the NHS.
Well, it was a Labour amendment that ensured “parity of esteem” Corbyn claimed.
May finished by reiterating her statement on austerity, and changing emphasis at the end, when she said: “We will see debt falling and we will see support for our public services going up. Austerity is being brought to an end. What is not being brought to an en end is fiscal responsibility.”
There, May did well to hark back to one of Cameron’s favourite soundbites – fiscal responsibility – while she deftly avoided engaging with anything of the substance on the impact of controversial policies.
Corbyn’s performance was fine, but as always his questions were too long and he is just too self-satisfied to be likeable. May was the same as always – reasonable, thorough and uninspiring.
The biggest takeaway from this particular session is that there is absolutely nothing of significance to be learnt from the whole charade of May v Corbyn at PMQs, ever.