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Jeremy Corbyn has found a vulnerable spot on Theresa May and trade

May dodged the bullet today but the Labour leader has a chance to do real damage. 

It’s fair to say that today’s Prime Minister’s Questions won’t be featuring in Jeremy Corbyn’s highlights reel. Theresa May agreed to publishing a White Paper on Brexit before he stood up, and he had to improvise the first question, and thereafter never really regained his momentum.

But he had one question that has the potential to drag May and her government into the mire. While she did a good job sidestepping it today, she won’t be able to avoid it forever.

It was this: can the government commit that a trade deal between the United States and the United Kingdom won’t open up the National Health Service to exploitation by American corporations?

May was able to bat it off by talking about the government’s commitment to funding Britain’s health service and the increase in the minimum wage. And as far as the cut-and-thrust of PMQs is concerned, she’ll be able to do that.

But sooner or later, an actual trade deal between the United States and the United Kingdom is going to be on the floor of the House, and rhetorical flourishes about the Conservatives’ record since 2010 won’t do much good.

The government faces two headaches in particular as far as a trade deal between itself and the United States are concerned. The first is the NHS, which has the potential to cause public unease on a par with the row over Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms which, we shouldn’t forget, knackered the government for over a year. And don’t forget either that the Coalition had a majority of 77 while the government has one of just 11.

The second – and potentially the more explosive, despite the emotional hold the Health Service has in British politics – is over agriculture. There are two major stumbling blocks: the first is genetically modified food, commonplace in the United States but the subject of a greater level of controversy throughout Europe, including the United Kingdom. The second is what is given to livestock – that is, what is fed to our cows, sheep, pigs, as well as the hormones that are pumped into them. There are far higher restrictions on what you can do to your livestock in British farms than there are in the United States.

That risk comes in two shapes for the government. The first is a consumer panic about what goes into our food. But the more acute as far as the government’s ability to legislate is concerned are the worries of Conservatives in farmland constituencies that were either Liberal-held or had the Liberal Democrats second in 2015. A deal with the United States is going to be much more politically fraught than many expect – and not only because of the NHS.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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