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.