Getty Images.
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Theresa May is betting that Donald Trump will deliver for her

The Prime Minister's confident assurances on Nato and the NHS risk making her a hostage to fortune.

After Theresa May's most trying week since she became Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn arrived well-armed at today's PMQs. "The Prime Minister told the House: 'I’m not afraid to speak frankly to the President of the United States.' What happened?" was his fine opener. But May gave no ground in response. She declared that not only did she "build on the relationship we have with our most important ally" but she won a "very significant commitment" from Trump: a "100 per cent commitment to Nato" (though those were her words, rather than the president's).

When Corbyn, whose questions were commendably direct and succinct, sought to pin May down on whether she knew about the refugee ban, she delivered a carefully crafted response: "If he's asking me whether I had advance notice of the ban on refugees, the answer is 'no'. If he's asking me if I had advance notice of whether the order could affect British citizens, the answer is 'no'. if he's asking if I had advance notice of travel restrictions, the answer is 'we all did' because President Trump said he would do this in his election campaign."

She framed the Conservatives as the party of government and Labour as an inconsequential movement: "The job of government is not to chase headlines, the job of government is not to take to the streets in protest, the job of government is to protect the interests of British citizens and that's what we did."

Ever since delivering her Brexit speech, May has cut a more confident and assertive figure in the Commons and she was unfazed by Corbyn's call for her to "rule out opening up our NHS to private US healthcare companies" during trade negotiations. The PM replied: "I could give a detailed answer ... but I think a simple and straightforward reply is what is required. The NHS is not for sale and it never will be".

After Corbyn ended by demanding that she cancel Trump's planned state visit (“He’s praised the use of torture; he’s incited hatred against Muslims; he’s directly attacked women’s rights"), May fired a precision-guided missile at the Labour leader: "[Corbyn's] foreign policy is to object to and insult the democratically elected head of state of our most important ally ... He can lead a protest, I'm leading a country."

But behind May's confident rhetoric, risks remain. Having made so much of Trump's alleged conversion to Nato, she will soon be exposed if it proves anything less than "100 per cent". Similarly, her assertion that the "NHS is not for sale" was not a categorical assurance that US health companies would not play a greater role in the future. May certainly gives the appearance of confidence. But on multiple fronts, she risks becoming a hostage to fortune.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496