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13 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 1:05pm

Tory MPs are abandoning Theresa May, and other lessons from this week’s PMQs

By Patrick Maguire

Jeremy Corbyn wants to win the elderly’s votes – but not by talking Brexit

Jeremy Corbyn opened by thanking Theresa May of entering into Brexit talks with a spirit of compromise — before taking the Prime Minister to task on the increase to rates of insecure work and poverty during her premiership. 

The Labour leader’s line of questioning continued in a similar vein: he asked for a promise that a benefits freeze would not be in the next Conservative manifesto, pressed her to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit, attacked the government’s record on pensioner poverty, and demanded she guarantee free TV licences for the over 75s. 

There is an awareness among Corbyn’s team that Labour must increase its appeal among older voters if it is to make serious progress at the next election (the over 55s swung towards the Tories in 2017), and there was an extended pitch in his last conference speech to that effect. Both that and his denunciation of cuts more generally offer a glimpse of the sort of campaign Labour could run in a snap poll — which, as Corbyn’s choice of questioning indicates, they will be hoping is not dominated by Brexit. 

In turning to Labour, May has lost her own party…

May responded to Corbyn’s questions with the sort of partisan attacks on Labour’s record in government — and doomsaying about what they might do if they cross the threshold of 10 Downing Street again — that are usually reliably cheap applause lines at any session of Prime Minister’s Questions. 

Her own benches, however, were almost completely silent for the duration of the session. Even the government payroll were muted and no fewer than six of May’s colleagues criticised . The biggest cheers from Tory MPs were not in support of the Prime Minister, but for Nigel Adams, the former Wales Office minister and whip who resigned over her call for a cross-party Brexit solution this morning. 

The uncharacteristic quiet — and complete absence of helpful questions from the Tory benches — came despite a plea for friendly interventions from Downing Street ahead of this week’s session. Trust in Theresa May was already arguably at a historic low before her potentially party-splitting offer to Corbyn last night, but Tory backbenchers ended last week’s session crying: “More!” The icy, lifeless atmosphere this week is a testament to just how badly May’s statement has been received. 

As another former minister, David Jones, and a Brexit-backing member of the 2017 intake, Lee Rowley, alluded to with their questions — both variants on “Do you still believe that the leader of the opposition is a bad lad?” — anti-Corbyn invective has a much hollower feel if it’s coming from someone prepared to work with him. 

And that even Caroline Johnson, a hitherto faultlessly loyal ministerial bag-carrier, criticised the Prime Minister’s decision to seek a deal with an “anti-Semite Marxist” — reflects just how weak a hold Downing Street has on party discipline. Party loyalty – and convention – is crumbling. 

…but she knows how she’d fight a snap election

The Prime Minister sought to spin that deeply unpopular decision to enter talks with Jeremy Corbyn as an attempt to deliver on the popular mandate Leave won in 2016. 

If talks with the Labour leader end, for whatever reason, in stalemate, expect that line to feature prominently in the Tory election campaign that will surely be inevitable once we blunder into a long extension. 

Labour Remainers will accept nothing less than a second referendum

It’s often the case that Corbynsceptics use their questions to Theresa May not to challenge the Prime Minister, but their own leader. Owen Smith offered a classic of the genre this afternoon when he stressed that he expected Corbyn to demand a customs union, a high level of single market alignment and a confirmatory referendum on whatever deal they reached in his talks with May. If he asks for – or accepts – anything less, expect a mutiny.

Away from Brexit, knife crime is topping the domestic agenda

Two May loyalists – Vicky Ford and James Cleverly – asked the Prime Minister about the government’s knife crime strategy. The issue is seldom far from the front pages, and, indeed, was mentioned by May in a recent Downing Street statement on Brexit. Labour’s Stephen Doughty, meanwhile, asked about police cuts. Expect those two themes to combine as a perfect storm at the next election.

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