The headlines speak only of Brexit and immigration. But Jeremy Corbyn wisely avoided both subjects at the first PMQs of the new season. Labour’s divisions on free movement are too profound for him to profit.
Instead, Corbyn focused on where there is unity: on corporate excess and austerity. As he faced Therea May, who has recently reaffirmed her commitment to tackling economic injustice, the Labour leader exploited the gap between the Prime Minister’s rhetoric and the reality.
Corbyn began by referencing the McDonald’s strike, and later condemned Sports Direct, but May refused to criticise either company. Instead, she targeted Labour, denouncing the party’s failure to act over zero-hours contracts while in government (not an omission that Corbyn can be blamed for). But after seven years of Conservative administration, this attack has diminishing returns. May’s surprise segue into Trident was a symptom of her weakness.
When Corbyn turned to the energy market, the PM insisted that she still intended to act, despite the abandonment of the promised price freeze. On the public sector pay cap, she similarly hinted at action to come. But her answers were too equivocal for her to advance.
May, like David Cameron before her, also framed Labour as fiscally irresponsible (an attack rarely deployed during the election). “What he does, inside and outside parliament, is consistently stand up and ask for more money to be spent on this, that and the other,” she said of Corbyn. May added: “As a result of the decisions the Labour Party took in government we now have to pay more on debt interest than on NHS pay, that’s the result of Labour!”
The problem for the Conservatives is that, having repeatedly missed their deficit reduction targets, their own fiscal credibility is in doubt (the deficit is not due to be eliminated until at least 2025, a decade later than first promised). And after seven years of austerity, a weary electorate would welcome more money “spent on this, that and the other”, as public services wither.
Corbyn, as he always does on such occasions, reminded May that “she had no problem finding £1bn for the DUP”. For Labour, that political bung is the gift that keeps giving. And the party’s attack machine will have noted May’s refusal to rule out raising income tax, national insurance or VAT. As long as the Tories refuse to break with austerity, Labour will have no shortage of targets.