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10 July 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 2:11pm

Labour MPs have one eye on the Greens, and five other things we learnt from PMQs

By Patrick Maguire

Labour MPs have one eye on the Greens…

Alex Sobel, the Labour MP for Leeds North West, opened the session with a critique of the government’s approach to the climate crisis — and urged Theresa May both to beef up its net zero emissions target and drop its opposition to new onshore wind power developments. 

Questions in this vein from Jeremy Corbyn and his backbenchers are increasingly a fixture of PMQs. 

While the Labour leader and John McDonnell have put green issues at the heart of their programme for government, there are more personal political motivations at play too. 

Sobel, who won his seat in 2017, has a majority of just 4,224 over the Lib Dems — and the Greens performed strongly in his patch in 2015. Labour MPs in seats like his know that they risk being outflanked by both parties not only on Brexit, but on climate change too. 

It is much easier, and politically straightforward, for Labour MPs to make the necessary rhetorical and political shift on the environment than it is on the EU, and PMQs is the best possible stage for an MP in search of positive local news coverage to do it on. Expect their next election campaign to be as green as it is red. 

…as do ambitious Tories

Bim Afolami, one of the rising stars of the 2017 intake of Conservative MPs, also asked May about climate change — and drew attention to his own constituency initiatives on the issue. 

Though their success has been most pronounced in urban areas, the Greens also surged in the shires in this year’s local elections. Tories looking to the future — and their abysmal polling ratings among young voters — are increasingly keen for their party to take the initiative. 

Afolami, who is supporting Boris Johnson, will be among those pushing the next administration for action. 

The next Tory leader needs answers on education

Jess Phillips, the Labour MP, staged a headline-grabbing protest on the steps of Downing Street last week — leaving her son, whose Birmingham school has been closed on Friday afternoons because of funding pressures, in the care of the prime minister. 

Several other Labour MPs brought similar complaints to the prime minister’s door in this afternoon’s session. The 2017 election showed that education cuts are an issue that can do serious damage to the Conservatives electorally. Though both contenders to succeed May have promised more cash, neutralising the issue completely might well be beyond them. 

Both parties see opportunity in each other’s racism scandals 

Corbyn and May’s exchange — on legal aid and access to justice — degenerated into a slanging match when the prime minister raised Labour’s row over anti-Semitism in one riposte. 

The leader of the opposition responded in kind, citing allegations of Islamophobia against Conservative members. 

Unedifying though their slanging match was, both parties clearly believe there is political capital to be made in attacking the other party as racist. Indeed, Labour MPs exasperated by their leadership’s handling of the anti-Semitism controversy often complain that Tory attack lines are echoed back to them on the doorstep. 

If the air war has the effect of terminally limiting each party’s appeal among the Jewish and Muslim communities, then the electoral impact could be unpredictable — and potentially profound. 

On Trump, a culture war is dividing the Tories

SNP leader Ian Blackford used the lengthy prelude to his first question to criticise Boris Johnson’s failure to defend Kim Darroch, who quit as US ambassador this morning, after diplomatic telegrams in which he criticised Donald Trump were leaked to the press. 

Theresa May had used her own opening remarks to pay tribute to Darroch, but did not take the bait. Beside her, however, her de facto deputy David Lidington — no fan of Johnson — could be seen nodding in agreement. Jeremy Hunt has also defended the former ambassador. Hard Brexiteers like Dominic Raab, who went further than Johnson and directly criticised Darroch last night, take the opposite view. 

Already riven by irreconcilable differences on Brexit, Conservative MPs are looking increasingly polarised on other fundamental questions. If there was ever a politician designed to exacerbate rather than bridge those divisions, it’s Boris Johnson. 

Theresa May will be a quiet nuisance on the backbenches

Though she repeatedly declined to take opportunities to criticise Boris Johnson — and even went as far as saying that he, like Hunt, would make a good prime minister — May did go out of her way to stress her opposition to a no-deal Brexit on several occasions, as she has in previous weeks. 

We can infer from these answers that, while unlikely to be a full-throated mutineer, May could well take a stand against her successor’s Brexit policy where it matters: in the division lobbies.

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