What did we learn from PMQs today, as Diane Abbott and Dominic Raab went head-to-head in the absence of Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn? Aside from the fact that Sir John Major rang Ken Clarke this morning to complain about Boris Johnson speech at conference, there was one key thing: that Labour has identified the Conservatives’ perceived women problem as a point of weakness, while the Conservatives have quietly retreated from the rhetoric of “humbug” gate.
On Labour’s side, they have identified that, beyond Brexit, the major political issues of the day can all be used to exacerbate a pre-existing electoral problem for the Tories: that they consistently poll less well among women, particularly young women. (In 2017, only seven per cent of women under 25 voted Conservative.)
Abbott began the debate by forcing Raab into a conciliatory position on questions of abuse and harassment of female MPs, asking that Raab apologise on behalf on the Prime Minister for responding “humbug” to a Labour MP who informed him that some of his own words had been used in death threats against her. She informed Raab that the MP in question had received four more death threats since the Prime Minister’s comments. Abbott then went on to ask about the billboard harassing Stella Creasy, the Labour MP, who was pictured in an advertising campaign beside a picture of a foetus.
Quickly, however, Abbott pulled other issues – from Thomas Cook to austerity – under the umbrella argument that the Conservatives are failing women. “Whether it’s women in parliament, women claiming benefits for their children, women’s reproductive rights in Northern Ireland, and the failure to support women workers at Thomas Cook, isn’t this government letting women down?” Abbott asked.
The Conservatives, meanwhile, have quietly conceded that they need to roll back from the Prime Minister’s “humbug” response to concerns about the violence of our political discourse. While still occasionally using, and defending, the use of the phrase “surrender bill” to describe the Benn act, Raab’s approach today suggests that the Conservatives have absorbed the polling which indicated that the public, does, on the whole, think that our political rhetoric is too extreme.
Raab, an ex-lawyer with fierce litigation skills and a famously fiery temper, adopted a conciliatory approach when facing Abbott today: clearly the calculation was that an overly aggressive encounter with the black female MP who received over half of all the online abuse directed against MPs before the general election would further damage the party’s standing on this issue. He congratulated her for making history as the first black politician to take to the despatch box for PMQs, acknowledged what he called the “disgusting” abuse directed against her, and began his answers to Anna Soubry and Amber Rudd by emphasising that he had always got on with them despite differing views on Brexit. Notable, also, was an almost complete reluctance to point the finger at Labour’s rhetoric, a strategy that party figures adopted when the row over political language first erupted.
Themes of tolerance and respect for women and minorities loomed large over the entire debate today, as Margot James asked about the possibility of waiving automatic anonymity online, and Shailesh Vara asked about Mahatma Ghandi.
It will be clear to the Conservatives that doggedly defending the rhetoric used against MPs who oppose No Deal bleeds problematically into broader, live concerns about the party’s – and its leader’s – attitude towards women. Today shows that they seem to have learned that lesson – but now that Labour are exploiting that weakness, it won’t be a problem that goes away.