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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn targets Theresa May's "broken promises"

The Labour leader and Yvette Cooper previewed what will be one of their party's defining attack lines. 

Theresa May has long sought to define herself as a politician who keeps her word and doesn't play "games". But her decision to call a general election (having vowed not to do so) flagrantly undermines her brand. At today's PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn immediately exploited this opportunity. "We welcome the general election," he began. "But this is a Prime Minister who promised there wouldn’t be one, a Prime Minister who cannot be trusted."

Corbyn's attack was, as often, overly scattergun, ranging across the TV debates (May won't do them), child poverty, wages, the deficit, schools cuts and the NHS. But a theme was discernible: "broken promises". The Labour leader assailed the Tories for missing their debt and deficit targets and for breaking their pledge to protect school funding. After May insisted that the Conservatives' record was one of success, not failure, Corbyn riposted: "If she's so proud of her record, why won't she debate it?"

But May, like David Cameron, is likely to pay little price for ducking the debates and revived her predecessor's most potent lines. Only the Conservatives, she declared, could deliver a "strong economy" and "strong defence" (a theme that Corbyn's anti-Trident stance will bring to the fore). When Corbyn complained about debt levels, she replied that Labour had pledged to borrow £500bn. Like Ed Miliband, the opposition leader will struggle to distinguish between "good" and "bad" borrowing.

May drew on the goldmine of anti-Corbyn quotes available to her. "We know what Labour's plans would entail because we've been told by the former Labour shadow chancellor [Chris Leslie]," May said. "You'd have to double income tax, double national insurance, double council tax, and you'd have to double VAT as well" - that's Labour's plan for the economy." 

When Yvette Cooper (who is increasingly spoken of as Labour's next leader) rose to speak, she delivered a more ruthless version of Corbyn's attack. "She wants her to believe she is a woman of her word; isn’t the truth that we can’t believe a single word she says?” May replied by again lashing Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems for seeking to obstruct Brexit (an attack that inspired the Daily Mail's "Crush the saboteurs" headline). 

Though much has changed, 2017 feels a lot like 2015: Labour denouncing the Tories' "broken promises; the Tories warning Labour would "bankrupt Britain". The lines are familiar; Corbyn can only hope the outcome isn't. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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.