Tories spy opportunity in Labour's anti-semitism crisis, and three other lessons from PMQs

There was a lot to go over in Theresa May's second-to-last PMQs. 

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The Conservatives may have changed their thinking over anti-Semitism in the Labour party

Jeremy Corbyn majored on climate change in his questions today. The government has some genuine achievements to shout about here (as well as some things to apologise for) and the usual approach for the sitting Prime Minister is to simply bat statistics back at the leader of the opposition.

Instead she opted to respond with a non sequitur – majoring on the criticism of Corbyn by 64 Labour peers over anti-Semitism. Labour has questions to answer over anti-Semitism but it’s very rare for the Prime Minister to respond with a completely unrelated topic – rarer still for the Prime Minister not even to make a pretence of answering the question first.

For a long time, most Conservatives, including those right at the top of the party, thought that Labour’s difficulties with anti-Semitism were a problem of opportunity cost, rather than something that could directly damage the party. As one Cabinet minister reflected to me, “every second that Labour spends talking about anti-Semitism is one they aren’t talking about the cuts.”

The departure here is that, instead of reassuring voters who are Conservative-inclined but worried about climate change that the government is tackling the problem, May went hard on anti-Semitism. Their calculation over whether the row is a vote-mover, as opposed to simply a distraction for Labour, has changed.

But the Tories don’t think they have questions to answer over Islamophobia

One reason why some topics don’t get discussed at PMQs is that they are politically painful for both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition. Neither politician brought up the loss of MPs to the short-lived Independent Group because they had both lost parliamentarians to the group. Jeremy Corbyn rarely brings up Brexit because while his party’s splits on the issue do not imperil the near-term future of his leadership in the way they did Theresa May’s (or will for Boris Johnson), his party is still badly split on the issue.

The main reason why Corbyn did not bring up the topic of Islamophobia in the Conservative party, except as a rhetorical shield against charges that he has failed to tackle anti-Semitism in his party is because he will have known that going on that topic would have opened him up to attack over anti-Semitism.

May had no such doubts about doing the reverse, even though she had no answer to the question of Conservative Islamophobia. Both parties palpably have questions to answer: Labour is under investigation by the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, and the Conservative response to a series of findings that Islamophobic attitudes are rife within their party suggests that they may soon be going the same way.  

The Tory problem may well be more electorally acute in the near-term simply because as they sharpen their appeal to Leave voters, they are going to have to make significant in-roads among ethnic minority leavers if they want to be a viable party of parliamentary majorities and Leave: yet that May had no pre-prepared lines on this beyond “well, you’re terrible too” shows that the party has done no thinking on it and believes that its record is squeaky-clean.

Labour are really, really keen to big up their green credentials

This wasn’t a week with an obvious line of attack for Corbyn to go on. He couldn’t major on polls showing widespread Islamophobic attitudes in the Conservative party because of Labour’s own problems about racism in its ranks. He couldn’t go on no deal Brexit because of Labour’s internal divides.

So it was always likely to be a week in which he went on a “home” issue, like health, education or welfare. Instead he went on the environment, an issue which Labour have much to be proud of both in their past and present, but also one where, like the Conservatives, there is much to criticise in both their present programme and past actions.

It makes sense for Labour to have some response to the growing importance of climate change (both to voters, and also to global security and the future of the human race) but it is interesting that they clearly regard it as a safe piece of real estate for them – rather than terrain that is dominated by the buoyant Greens.

No-one cares about Theresa May any more

There were large gaps in the chamber on the Conservative benches at the start of the session and large gaps throughout at the end. Power – and therefore, interest – have almost completely deserted Theresa May.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.