After one of the grimmest weeks of her premiership, it was perhaps a blessing for Theresa May to miss today’s PMQs (the Prime Minister is on an official trip to China). But Emily Thornberry, who faced May’s de facto deputy David Lidington, still relished in the Conservatives’ woes.
When they last faced each other in December 2016, the shadow first secretary of state reminded Lidington, the Tories were 17 points ahead and he described Labour as “quarreling like the film Mutiny on the Bounty reshot by the team who made Carry On”. “Well,” Thornberry observed, “what a difference a year makes.”
In advance of the 100th anniversary of the first British women to gain the vote, Thornberry noted a remarkable fact: “I am the only Emily elected since 1918 and he is one of 155 Davids.” When Lidington inevitably riposted that the Tories boasted two female prime ministers, Thornberry replied: “If the party opposite is so proud of having a female leader, why are so many of them trying to get rid of her?”
To the surprise of most, the shadow foreign secretary led on the subject of reducing the voting age to 16. Though she did not declare Labour’s interest (it won 62 per cent of the 18-24-year old vote, so would likely be the political winner), Thornberry made a robust case for the move: “We can get married we can start work, we can pay taxes, we can join the forces.”
Having been well-prepped, as ever, by the Machiavellian Damian McBride, Thornberry even used Lidington’s own words (at a Youth Parliament event) against him: “When the voice and the vote of young people is absent, decisions are made that affect young people’s lives that they have not always chosen.”
Lidington was unruffled and efficient, but offered no definitive argument against the move (“The last Labour government that raised the age to buy cigarettes, raised the age to buy knives to 18, raised the age to buy fireworks to 18 and raised the age to buy sunbeds to 18,” he noted, prompting Thornberry to note that public health is not the same as voting).
The Tories and the DUP were Thornberry concluded not a “coalition of chaos but a coalition of cavemen.” Every party, she noted, with the exception of the Conservatives and the DUP, backed votes at 16. “Why doesn’t the minister realise the lesson that we women taught his predecessors 100 years ago? When change is right it cannot be resisted together and this is a change whose time has come.”
Though Westminster will view this as a rather “soft subject” for PMQs, it will likely fly on social media (which shapes Labour’s PMQs approach). Lidington’s rather cringeworthy response was to advise Thornberry to “wean herself off the habit of watching old versions of the Flintstones” and, worse, to “grow up”.But he should be mindful of the danger that the Tories appear a party out of time.