Five things we learnt from PMQs today

Theresa May doesn't want to talk about Brexit, but struggles to defend her record on anything else.

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It’s May Day. Today’s PMQs were the first public statement the prime minister has made in nearly three weeks. The benches on both the government and opposition sides were sparsely populated, as growing numbers of MPs see little reason to attend the weekly session.

Here’s what we learned.

We’re keeping mum on Brexit before the locals…

It’s the eve of the local elections, and neither Labour nor the Conservatives want them to be about Brexit. Councillors say that, despite their best efforts, the issue is brought up frequently on the doorstep – so in Westminster the two main parties are keen to do what they to deflect the conversation to local and domestic matters.

… but the Tories are easy prey for Labour on all else

Local government is tricky territory for May. She has tried to make the election about the services provided by Conservative-run councils, but she can’t escape the fact that she has presided over the continuation of savage and long-term cuts to local government.

Domestic politics is another difficult area for her. Thanks to Brexit, May’s been unable to do much on the subject of the country’s “burning injustices” which she broached at the steps of 10 Downing Street nearly three years ago. The green paper on social care has been delayed eight times, while violent crime is rising and making headlines.

Corbyn’s questions on social mobility, social care, food banks, and crime and policing were therefore comfortable territory for the Labour leader, and the prime minister struggled to give convincing responses.  

May is on shaky ground when it comes to immigration

The government is reportedly drawing up plans to charge EU students the sky-high fees that students from outside the bloc currently pay. It’s in keeping with May’s hardline stance on all forms of immigration, but it’s set to cause her a lot of trouble.

The SNP’s Ian Blackford brought up the issue of student fees in the session, asking May if she was “determined to build a bigger hostile environment”. A good number of senior Conservatives will have privately sympathised with him, and have serious misgivings about May’s apparent hostility to international students.  

In a related question, Paul Masterton raised concerns “about recent changes to the immigration rules for preachers coming to the UK on short-term supply placements. The new Tier 2 visa is double the cost, making it unaffordable for many parishes”. It goes to show how Scottish Conservatives have trouble defending the Westminster party’s tough immigration policy in their constituencies.

May is salting old Labour wounds on Scotland

After Corbyn asked his first question of the session, May called him out for not welcoming the anniversary of the union of England and Scotland on 1 May 1707.

It demonstrates how keen the Conservatives are to paint themselves as the only unionist party in Scotland. It’s a rerun of 2015 when they delivered a severe blow to Ed Miliband by depicting Labour as being in the pocket of the SNP.

Labour thinks that, at best, a unionist strategy would make any party only the second-biggest in Scotland. Its aim is to become the biggest party north of the border again, by shifting the political conversation to austerity and economic and social inequality instead.

The Conservatives are rattled by Huawei

May broke her silence on Huawei in response to a strongly-worded question from Tory MP Tom Tugendhat, who said it was an “extraordinary” decision to allow the Chinese company to built parts of the UK’s 5G network against the advice of two of its biggest security allies, the US and Australia. He said it amounted to “nesting a dragon in the critical national infrastructure of the UK”.

May said she was “committed to taking decisions supported by a hard-headed technically informed assessment of the risk. We do discuss very closely with our allies security issues, and we have put in place a review of the 5G supply chain to ensure we have a secure and resilient rollout of 5G.”

She is sure to face further questions on this this afternoon in her appearance before the Liaison Committee, including from Tugendhat. The issue is a headline grabber, and an easy way of scoring political points for anyone who brings it up. 

Eleni Courea writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2018.