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15 November 2017

PMQs review: Theresa May comes out fighting but trouble lies ahead

The Prime Minister delivered her most confident performance since the election debacle - but bigger tests await her. 

By George Eaton

Theresa May’s recent PMQs performances have done little to dispel the impression of an enfeebled Prime Minister. But today May enjoyed her best outing since the fateful election. She defended the Conservatives’ record – and attacked Labour’s – with far more vigour than on past occasions. 

May was aided by Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to reprise his scattergun approach. The Labour leader asked questions on no less than six subjects: police cuts, fire safety, Universal Credit, the NHS, schools funding and tax avoidance. By spreading himself too thinly, Corbyn failed to put May under significant pressure (unlike in previous weeks). 

As the longest-serving Home Secretary in recent history, May was on comfortable ground when Corbyn led on crime. After the Labour leader smartly spotted that Boris Johnson had complained over the closure of Uxbridge police station, the PM riposted: “The police and crime commissioner in London is the Mayor. The last time I looked Sadiq Khan was a Labour mayor of London, although perhaps the leader of the Labour Party thinks he’s not Labour enough for him and his band.”

When Corbyn turned to Universal Credit, May was able to rebuke him for not sending a previously promised letter of complaint. And when the Labour leader referred to the Tories as “the opposition” (“the opposition to us,” he clarified), May pounced on his words: “This is a major moment, he has got something right today. We are the government and he is the opposition.”

During the election, Tory MPs often lamented May’s seeming unwillingness to defend the government’s record (owing to her desire to distance herself from David Cameron). But today the PM boasted that income inequality, unemployment, workless households and the deficit were all “down under the Conservatives, up under Labour”.

May ended to the rare sound of her MPs crying “more!” But there is plenty of potential trouble ahead. Damian Green, May’s deputy (who sat beside her today), could yet be forced to resign over alleged sexual harassment (a Cabinet Office investigation will soon conclude), next week’s Budget will resurrect Tory divisions over Brexit and the economy (Tory MP Tom Tugendhat today pressed May for more housing investment) and the EU Council could deny the UK the right to begin trade talks at its December summit. 

When I tweeted of these three challenges, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, self-deprecatingly replied: “Only three?” Indeed. But May’s fighting performance will help dispel MPs’ fears that she has lost her appetite for the job.