Better late than never. Last week, Labour MPs despaired as Jeremy Corbyn failed to raise grammar schools at PMQs. But he didn’t miss his opportunity today. Corbyn devoted all six of his questions to the subject and produced his best performance for months.
The Labour leader began by sardonically congratulating Theresa May on achieving “a new era of unity in education thinking” by uniting former Labour and Conservative education secretaries, Ofsted and the teaching unions in opposition to new grammars. Could she, he asked, “name any educational experts who back her plans”? May could not.
When the Prime Minister riposted that Corbyn needed to “stop casting his mind back to the 1950s”, Labour MPs collectively jeered her. Her decision to open a classic left-right dividing line has produced rare unity among the opposition.
Struggling to explain the need for new grammars, May resorted to platitudes (“what we need is a good school for every child”). She jibed: “He went to a grammar school, I went to a grammar school – it’s what got us to where we are today. But my side might be rather happier about that than his.” But Corbyn was not thrown off course. May failed to say whether existing grammars would be subject to the proposed new requirements, emphasising that the government was “consulting” (a mark of the opposition she faces on her subdued benches).
After May began the session by paying tribute to David Cameron, Corbyn smartly quoted the former PM’s criticism of grammars. “Isn’t he correct that we need investment in all of our schools: a good school for every child, not selection at the age of 11?”
In response, May deployed a favoured trick of her predecessor: why hadn’t Corbyn mentioned today’s employment figures? But the Labour leader had at least prepared a riposte: “The problem is there are now almost a million of them on zero-hours contracts who do not know what they’re going to be paid one week to another.”
The Prime Minister ended with a pre-prepared passage mocking Corbyn’s first year as leader.” Let’s just think of some of the things the Right Honourable Gentleman has introduced. He wants coal mines without mining them, subs without sailing them and he wants to be Labour leader without leading them. One thing we know: whoever is Labour leader after their leadership election, it will be the country that loses.”
Many of Corbyn’s MPs would agree with that. But today, they gave their leader a better reception than at any time since the EU referendum. “Jeremy Corbyn easy win at #PMQs,” tweeted former shadow education secretary Lucy Powell. “Theresa May has made a serious misjudgement on grammar schools. Her MPs know it.” By picking this battle, May has reminded Corbyn’s friends and foes why they are in the same party.