One would never have guessed from today’s PMQs that the cabinet is split on Brexit and Heathrow. Jeremy Corbyn ignored both issues in favour of the NHS (not least because Labour has its own divisions). Corbyn pounced on the health funding crisis, reminding Theresa May that the service was in surplus in 2010 and that the Conservatives had imposed a wasteful “top-down reorganisation”. The Prime Minister, in turn, reminded him that Labour had pledged less funding than the Tories at the last general election (and cut spending in Wales) and that Ed Miliband had wanted to “weaponise” the NHS. It was the political equivalent of a repeat edition.
Corbyn’s attack on the false economy of social care cuts (which leaves patients in costly hospital beds) was well-chosen. But his questions were far too verbose to trouble May. It was former shadow energy secretary Lisa Nandy, often spoken of as a future leader, who asked the most piercing question. When, she enquired, did May “personally learn” of the “serious problems” with Lowell Goddard’s leadership of the child sex abuse inquiry? May, who established the inquiry as home secretary, replied that she “[could not] intervene on the basis of suspicion, rumour or hearsay”, an admission which invites further questions.
Nandy commented afterwards: “Theresa May set up the abuse inquiry and appointed its chair. She was the Home Secretary in April when serious concerns were raised with her department, and only she had the power to act on them. Today she suggested that she did know of problems but did nothing at all. For this investigation to regain the trust of survivors the Prime Minister must now come clean about what she knew when, and why she failed to intervene.”
Another awkward ball came from Heidi Allen, one of the leaders of the Tory tax credits revolt, who warned of Universal Credit cuts to come. Though May has softened austerity by abandoning George Osborne’s surplus target, Allen’s question was a reminder of the deprivations ahead.
Among other things, today’s PMQs will be remembered for a bawdy exchange on Peter Bone’s birthday. After the Tory eurosceptic informed the House of the event, May quipped: “I do hope that Mrs Bone is going to treat the occasion in the appropriate manner.” As MPs guffawed in astonishment, John Bercow cried: “I want to hear what’s coming next!” “Calm down, Mr Speaker,” the mischievous May replied.