It is less than a week since Theresa May entered No.10. But at her first PMQs, she resembled a veteran. Her brutally efficient performance delighted Tory MPs and left Labour’s looking even more morose than usual. Rather than the outrage and put-downs favoured by David Cameron, May deployed dark humour. “I hope we will be having those exchanges over this despatch box for many years to come,” she sardonically remarked as she welcomed Jeremy Corbyn.
When asked by the Labour leader about job insecurity, she seized the chance for an extended riff: “I suspect there are many members on the opposition benches who might be familiar with an unscrupulous boss, a boss who doesn’t listen to his workers, a boss who requires some of his workers to double their workload and maybe even a boss who exploits the rules to further his own career – remind him of anybody?” As May delivered the closing line, there was only one person most were reminded of: Margaret Thatcher. Though the comparison may appear lazy, the new Prime Minister’s intonation was uncannily reminiscent of her predecessor’s.
She charmed the Tory backbenches with similarly Thatcher-esque tropes on the economy (“He talks about ‘austerity’, I call it living within our means”) and security (thanking “the 140 Labour MPs who put the national interest first and voted to renew the nuclear deterrent”).
Corbyn took a scattergun approach, questioning May on Orgreave (her joint chief of staff Nick Timothy recently called for a public inquiry), home ownership, the abandoned surplus target, poverty and Boris Johnson’s “description of black people as piccaninnies” (and of Barack Obama as “half-Kenyan”). The PM simply dodged the latter, pointing to her own record on reforming stop and search laws, and Corbyn failed to press the point. May displayed similar obstinacy throughout the session, giving little away on single market membership and Heathrow expansion.
Many felt that Corbyn should have exploited the Tories’ divisions over the net migration target, which saw Boris Johnson yesterday call for its abolition. It was only at the end of the session that the subject was broached by Tory MP Philip Davies. Asked whether she still wanted to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands”, May replied that it was her “belief” that this was the “sustainable” level – a retreat from the more formal “target” of old (“It will take some time to get there,” she warned). In a gaffe-free session, this was the most uncomfortable moment for May. It was also a reminder that as she navigates the rapids of Brexit, the greatest source of trouble is likely to be her own side. But for today, May can be content with a debut far more accomplished than her doubters anticipated.