In PMQs this week Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn traded blows over the government’s record on reducing poverty and social and economic inequality.
Corbyn cited headlines that nine of the UK’s richest hedge fund managers have donated £2.9m to the Tories, and that a food bank had to be set up in BEIS after a payroll blunder failed to pay cleaners and support staff. He also quoted a report by economist Angus Deaton that the UK was at risk of “extreme” levels of inequality. May responded by defending the government’s record in job creation and reducing income inequality.
Here’s what we took from the session.
Barely anyone is paying attention to PMQs anymore
Yet again, May stood before large swathes of empty green benches as only around two thirds of her backbenchers bothered to show up for the session. That’s despite a letter to Tories from government whips six weeks ago urging them to up their game.
It’s a very visible sign of the prime minister’s diminished authority that so many of her own MPs will no longer spend 45 minutes to take part in a show of support for her.
Tory pressure on May to quit won’t abate…
But that’s not the only visible sign of May’s weakness. Many of the backbenchers who do turn up do so in order to inflict political blows.
Today, veteran right-winger Peter Bone heaped praise on Conservative activists in his constituency, before pulling out a letter in which they call on the prime minister to quit. He said: “They say that her deal is worse that staying in the EU; that they want us to come out now on a no deal basis; and sir, more importantly, they’ve lost confidence in the prime minister and wish her to resign before the European elections. Prime minister, what message do you have to say to these dedicated and loyal Conservatives?”
May responded by blaming MPs for not voting for her deal and therefore failing to deliver Brexit. She is resisting attempts to force her out before the European elections, but she may well reach the end of the line if the EU Withdrawal Bill is voted down in the Commons at the start of June.
… nor is there any softening in her Brexit position
It’s no wonder then that the prime minister won’t budge on her Brexit red lines: ending freedom of movement, ceasing large payments to the EU and developing an independent trade policy. She confirmed that this was still government policy in response to a question from Nigel Evans, who reminded her of the Tory promise that “we will deliver the full Brexit unlike the party opposite”.
May’s authority within her own party is so shot through that she can do no differently, and that explains why the cross-party Brexit talks she’s held with Labour are rapidly going nowhere.
No date in sight for the social care green paper
Conservative MP Andrew Lewer urged the prime minister to set a “definitive and unalterable date” for the release of the long-delayed green paper on adult social care. Its publication is now two years overdue after having been pushed back eight times.
May could give him no date in response and simply said the paper would be published “at the earliest opportunity”.
The new defence secretary faces her first political battle
In a series of points of order after May and Corbyn had left the chamber, MPs criticised the new defence secretary Penny Mordaunt’s decision not to grant an amnesty to Northern Irish veterans for historic crimes.
Mordaunt has proposed a law that would protect British troops and veterans from facing investigation over actions on the battlefield abroad after 10 years, but this would not apply to offences in Northern Ireland. The DUP’s Gavin Robinson said he had been previously assured that any proposal to protect veterans would apply equally across the UK. He quoted words from the attorney general that “it would be plainly wrong” not to do this, and condemned Mordaunt for not announcing the measure in the Commons before it reached the press.
Mordaunt has acted decisively in taking the fractious issue head-on as shortly after being appointed, but it also means that she’s very quickly facing her first difficult political battle as defence secretary.