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PMQs review: Theresa May tries to avoid the NHS

As Jeremy Corbyn warned that she was in "denial" over the "crisis", the PM sought to shift attention to the economy. 

With every PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn appears less and less of a break with the past. “Our NHS is in crisis but the Prime Minister is in denial,” he declared today, a line used by Labour leaders down the ages. After divisions over immigration and maximum wage laws, Corbyn focused solely on the issue of health (as many MPs have wanted him to).

Though Labour is often accused of crying wolf over the NHS, it isn’t only the opposition that is alarmed. In a much-quoted description, the Red Cross has warned of a “humanitarian crisis”. Theresa May rejected this as “irresponsible and overblown” but she found it harder to dismiss the figure cited by Corbyn: 1.8m people waited longer than four hours in A&E departments last year.

When May insisted that more people were being treated, Corbyn moved from the macro to the micro. He cited the case of an NHS worker’s 22-month old nephew who was treated on two plastic chairs held together by a blanket. May conceded that there had been a “small number of incidents” where “unacceptable practices” have taken place. “Small?” cried Labour MPs (there were 18,000 trolley waits of more than four hours last week).

May soon gave the impression of someone who wanted to change the subject. "We can only fund social care and NHS if we have a strong economy,” she declared (a line straight from David Cameron’s 2015 script). Brexit gives Labour the chance to argue that the Tories have threatened that aim but that is a blow the opposition has yet to land.

Both leaders appeared happier playing at home (Corbyn on the NHS, May on the economy) than away. Corbyn’s soundbites, however, have notably sharpened: “Earlier this week, the Prime Minister said she wanted to create a ‘shared society’. Well, we’ve certainly got that. More people sharing hospital corridors on trolleys. More people sharing waiting areas in A&E departments. More people sharing in anxiety created by this government.”

He demanded that May cancel the planned corporation tax cuts and “spend the money where it’s needed, on people in desperate need in social care or in our hospitals.” In response, the PM derided Corbyn’s “relaunch”.

"Yesterday he proved that he is not only incompetent but he would destroy our economy and that would devastate our NHS."

Once again, May used the health of the economy as a metric for the health of the NHS. But though the former has so far avoided recession, the latter is faring less well. As much as the PM may wish otherwise, this will not be the last chance that Corbyn gets to warn of “a crisis”.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Jeremy Corbyn stand down if Labour loses the general election?

Defeat at the polls might not be the end of Corbyn’s leadership.

The latest polls suggest that Labour is headed for heavy defeat in the June general election. Usually a general election loss would be the trigger for a leader to quit: Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband all stood down after their first defeat, although Neil Kinnock saw out two losses before resigning in 1992.

It’s possible, if unlikely, that Corbyn could become prime minister. If that prospect doesn’t materialise, however, the question is: will Corbyn follow the majority of his predecessors and resign, or will he hang on in office?

Will Corbyn stand down? The rules

There is no formal process for the parliamentary Labour party to oust its leader, as it discovered in the 2016 leadership challenge. Even after a majority of his MPs had voted no confidence in him, Corbyn stayed on, ultimately winning his second leadership contest after it was decided that the current leader should be automatically included on the ballot.

This year’s conference will vote on to reform the leadership selection process that would make it easier for a left-wing candidate to get on the ballot (nicknamed the “McDonnell amendment” by centrists): Corbyn could be waiting for this motion to pass before he resigns.

Will Corbyn stand down? The membership

Corbyn’s support in the membership is still strong. Without an equally compelling candidate to put before the party, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP are unlikely to initiate another leadership battle they’re likely to lose.

That said, a general election loss could change that. Polling from March suggests that half of Labour members wanted Corbyn to stand down either immediately or before the general election.

Will Corbyn stand down? The rumours

Sources close to Corbyn have said that he might not stand down, even if he leads Labour to a crushing defeat this June. They mention Kinnock’s survival after the 1987 general election as a precedent (although at the 1987 election, Labour did gain seats).

Will Corbyn stand down? The verdict

Given his struggles to manage his own MPs and the example of other leaders, it would be remarkable if Corbyn did not stand down should Labour lose the general election. However, staying on after a vote of no-confidence in 2016 was also remarkable, and the mooted changes to the leadership election process give him a reason to hold on until September in order to secure a left-wing succession.

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