There was a time when Jeremy Corbyn ran shy of political attack lines. Following Iain Duncan Smith’s 2016 resignation as work and pensions secretary, the Labour leader told his aide Seumas Milne: “It’s not up to me to throw in, other than a couple of lines about the government’s in a mess”.
But the Corbyn of 2018 is a very different beast. At the first PMQs of the new year, the Labour leader did not hesitate to exploit Theresa May’s reshuffle woes. “We know the Prime Minister recognises there’s a crisis in our NHS because she wanted to sack the Health Secretary last week (sic) but was too weak to do it,” Corbyn remarked.
He later mocked Hunt’s “occupation” of May’s office (the Health Secretary avoided a move to Business after an hours-long meeting) and declared that Hunt’s vow not to “abandon his ship” was proof that “under his captaincy the ship is indeed sinking”. That the reshuffle gifted Corbyn such lines was further proof that it weakened, rather than strengthened, the Prime Minister.
In time-honoured fashion, May responded to Corbyn’s NHS attacks by noting the service’s state in Labour-run Wales. But Corbyn had a ready riposte: “The Prime Minister leads a government which is responsible for the funding of national governments, including in Wales, she knows full well what’s been cut from Wales.” May also offered the unusual spectacle of a Conservative Prime Minister attacking the last Labour government from the left: “Under which government was it that private access in the health service increased?” (Though Corbyn, of course, bears no responsibility for that.)
May sought to discredit Labour by citing Angela Rayner’s description of the party’s approach (“shit or bust”) but the attack failed to land as the PM omitted the full phrase (“It did include bust”) and was forced to apologise for mocking the shadow education secretary’s absence (Rayner is undergoing medical treatment).
The Prime Minister said nothing to suggest that the government will devise a sustainable funding solution for the NHS (which Hunt has acknowledged is needed). Until the longest period of austerity in the health service’s history ends, it will continually haunt May.