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30 October 2019

Seven things we learned from a pre-election PMQs

Everybody knows how they will fight the looming contest.

By Patrick Maguire

The environment will be as high on the election agenda as Brexit

Can the Conservatives match Labour’s manifesto offer on climate? That was the question posed by Labour’s Alan Whitehead, the shadow energy minister, at the outset of the session.

Whitehead pointed to Labour’s ban on fracking, and dared Boris Johnson to better it. Later in the session, departing Tory Claire Perry O’Neill asked Johnson whether he agreed that Brexit should be resolved so that the government could focus on fighting climate change. Predictably, he agreed.

Intriguingly, the prime minister responded to Whitehead’s specific question by suggesting that the Tories would themselves soon announce a policy of comparable magnitude on fracking.

He also stressed that the Conservatives were committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

Both parties agree that the environment will be an issue that could drive as many votes as Brexit, particularly among liberal Remainers. And Johnson’s set-to with Whitehead underlined just how important both parties believe burnishing their green credentials will be if they are to stem a rising tide of support for the Liberal Democrats (and, in Corbyn’s case, the Greens) in December.

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Labour’s mission? Reminding voters that Boris Johnson is a Tory…

Jeremy Corbyn’s six questions were devoted to one of the few areas on which Labour still boasts a consistent polling lead: the NHS.

Among other things, he accused Johnson of conspiring to sell off the health service to Donald Trump, and presiding over deep cuts to hospital provision and social care budgets.

Expect Labour – whose election lines to take already stress that Johnson is a posh, wealthy Tory like any other – to go hard on both lines.

If it is to stand any chance of checking the Tory advance on its Leave constituencies in the north and midlands, it must keep hold of Brexit voters whose aversion to the Tory brand is stronger than their desire to leave the EU.

Labour strategists clearly believe that associating Johnson with a singularly unpopular US president, stereotypical Toryism, and mismanagement of the NHS is their surest route to success.

…and Johnson believes he can neutralise their attacks. But might his gambit backfire?

The prime minister responded in kind to Corbyn’s attacks – and punched the bruises that the Tories believe will inflict the most electoral pain on Labour.

Unsurprisingly, he sought to turn the question Tory weakness on the NHS into a broader, more advantageous question of leadership and economic competence (though he also emphasised that he intended to inject billions of new funding into hospitals himself). He and the Conservatives have clear leads on both issues.

And, just as Corbyn sought to associate him with Donald Trump, Johnson painted the Labour leader as a stooge of Vladimir Putin – citing his response to the Salisbury poisoning last year.

But it was his parting shot that the Tories believe will be their coup de grace on both sides of the border. Corbyn, Johnson argued, was the candidate of two referendums – on Brexit and Scottish independence. He framed a further delay to Britain’s departure from the EU in the terms that paid such rich dividends for Vote Leave in 2016: the amount it notionally costs the taxpayer (in this case, £1 billion per month gross).

The Tory calculation is that voters are so averse to any prolongation of the Brexit process that any suggestion of a new plebiscite will turn voters off. Ditto for unionists in Scotland.

But in stressing Labour’s commitment to a second referendum, the risk is that he inadvertently reminds Remain voters that a vote for Corbyn’s party gives them a chance to stop Brexit. That is exactly how even the most pessimistic Labour MP believes a tricky election might end up unfolding to their advantage.

Away from Brexit, MPs believe that the election will be won and lost on public services

Nearly every question from Labour backbenchers concerned cuts to public services: be they schools (Jess Phillips), policing (Karen Buck), the NHS (Paul Williams). Though there are profound differences of opinion between the PLP and leadership on the question of electoral strategy, they share a belief that Labour stands a much better chance of survival – if not success – if the debate shifts from Brexit to the domestic sphere.

And Conservative MPs are worried too. Brexiteer Will Wragg – whose Hazel Grove constituency is at risk of falling to the Liberal Democrats – asked a softball question on education funding, and praised his own local schools. It proved an area of particular vulnerability for Tories in 2017, which Johnson recognised in his leadership campaign. Candidates in marginals are very clearly seeking to protect themselves in advance.

The Conservatives are keeping quiet on their preferred Brexit

There is little appetite in the country – and particularly among Brexit voters in the north and midlands – for the sort high divergence, Canada-style, ultra-libertarian, deregulating Brexit favoured by many Tory Brexiteers. So it is hardly surprising that Johnson fudged a probing question from Ken Clarke, the Father of the House, about the sort of future trading relationship he would like with the EU.

Indeed, he sought to stress that he wanted a close economic relationship, and framed any divergence as an attempt to make the UK more progressive on animal welfare standards, and VAT on sanitary products.

The only hint of deregulation was on technology, where Johnson called for tax breaks for start-ups.  Despite the presence of Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng in his cabinet, he wants to cast Brexit as a project that’s more Wilsonian white heat than Britannia Unchained.

The Speaker election is a question of when, not who

John Bercow’s final session chairing PMQs was punctuated by gushing tributes from Remainers, who praised him fulsomely as a brave reformer and champion of backbenchers.

It is clear that, should the arithmetic of the next Parliament shift decisively in Remain’s favour, then a candidate seeking to continue Bercow’s approach to procedure – like Harriet Harman – stands a much better chance.

The reverse is true for candidates pledging to provide an antidote to Bercow’s inimitable style, so loathed by many Tories: namely Lindsay Hoyle and Eleanor Laing.

Given the unpredictability of the contest to come, the government would be best served by a Speaker election that fell this side of dissolution – lest the next one return a continuity Bercow to the chair.

Jo Swinson wants to emulate Nick Clegg

As so often under Bercow, one of the very last questions of a marathon session came from the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, who asked Johnson to commit to three-way television debates with herself and Jeremy Corbyn.

With both main party leaders so unpopular and polarising, the Liberal Democrats harbour hopes of coming through the middle with a fresh face once more.