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25 March 2020updated 07 Sep 2021 7:37am

Four things we learned from this week’s PMQs

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t going away, and neither are the concerns of Conservative MPs.

By Patrick Maguire

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t going away, you know

The conciliatory tone debuted at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions continued this week, as circumstances demanded. There was further reason for gracious turns at the despatch box, too: this afternoon’s double session was Jeremy Corbyn’s last as Labour leader. Boris Johnson, uncharacteristically, offered sincere praise for the leader of the opposition as a politician and man: “We may not agree about everything but no one can doubt his sincerity and his determination to build a better society.”

Corbyn did not respond in kind with thanks, but with a note of defiance. “My voice will not be stilled, I’ll be around, I’ll be campaigning, I’ll be arguing, and I’ll be demanding justice for the people of this country,” he told Johnson. The Labour leader has never been one for convention and it has always seemed unlikely that he would dutifully retire to the backbenches out of deference to his successor – especially, as seems likely, if they end up disagreeing on much.

Officials in the leader’s office have been working up a more detailed legacy plan for some time – but from his words today, it seems likely that Corbyn’s second life as a backbencher will be more Ted Heath than Gordon Brown. 

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak must act on the self-employed – and fast…

Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, has very little in common with Jeremy Corbyn: indeed, Tories like Bradley like to think that they owe their healthy majorities in deindustrialised constituencies that once voted reliably for Labour to their profound differences with him. Yet today, they struck an identical note, and asked very similar questions: just what did the government intend to do to support self-employed workers, many of whom are still continuing to work despite the introduction of lockdown measures?

Nearly every contribution from the Conservative backbenches sought clarity on the same subject. Would he provide support to farmers? Fishermen? And when? Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, used his four questions – bumped up from the usual two – to probe the government on the same subject. He pointed out that, had the government introduced measures before the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday night, then the government would not be having to deal with a small army of workers flouting social distancing measures for the sake of their own livelihoods.

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Politically, it was the sheer number of Conservative MPs asking the same question that should worry Johnson. He has already faced allegations of failing to listen and respond promptly enough to the concerns of his own party this week – and should the pattern continue, the political consequences could be as grave as those for public health and the economy.

…and charities need help too

Lindsay Hoyle bent the rules to take an additional question from an opposition frontbencher this afternoon – and Tracy Brabin, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, got the nod. She asked just what the government intended to do to support charities, a sector that has hitherto been missing from its measures of financial support. Without a package of government assistance, she asked, how would they continue to provide essential services to the vulnerable?

She was not alone in highlighting the gap in provision: Tory MPs noted the absence of assistance too. For the government, it is yet another fiscal headache – and perhaps an unintended consequence of its cuts to frontline services.

Coronavirus is still changing parliament

One of Lindsay Hoyle’s great selling points as a candidate for Speaker was his willingness to impose a strict half-hour time limit on sessions of Prime Minister’s Questions – a sharp contrast with late period John Bercow, who allowed it to run for as long as 50 minutes. Today, however, Hoyle allowed it to run for an hour.

Corbyn was entitled to twice as many questions, and a short break was instituted in the middle of the session to allow MPs to enter and exit the chamber. As much as the rigidity of parliament’s procedures is often criticised, the past weeks have demonstrated that, in a crisis, it has a surprising capacity for flexibility – as do those who usually resist any modernisation. 

Further changes are likely when parliament returns from its extended recess in three weeks. The question then is whether they endure beyond the pandemic. 

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