Conservative whips may have a Theresa May problem, and other things we learnt at PMQs

Meanwhile, the case of Zaghari-Ratcliffe is going to run and run. 

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On the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Labour prefer to let their badges do the talking

Although Jeremy Corbyn himself used six questions to discuss Saudi Arabia’s bombing of Yemen and the UK’s involvement in the same, the most striking foreign policy decision he made – from a political strategy perspective – was to wear a “Free Nazanin” badge, in support of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian citizen who is detained in Iran. Although it was left to Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, to ask the question directly, the important point made itself – the opposition parties are, if Boris Johnson is leader, going to do as much as humanly possible to keep the question of Zaghari-Ratcliffe in the public eye.

It’s a tricky balancing act for Labour (and the SNP, and the Liberal Democrats, and Plaid Cymru, and so on) in that, for obvious reasons, it is in their interest to keep the question of Johnson’s tenure in the Foreign Office and what it suggests about his ability to actually run the country in public view but it is at its most effective when it exists as a topic raised largely by other people.

Labour think their environmental platform is something to be proud of

Although Corbyn devoted his questions to Saudi Arabia’s bombing in the Yemen and the UKs involvement in it, it was striking that his opening remarks were on climate change – leading with the fact that the British parliament is the first in the world to have officially declared a climate emergency, following a Labour motion.

Green issues are a topic Labour often returns to at Prime Minister's Questions – Rebecca Long-Bailey got some joy out of David Lidington when acting as a stand-in – and the party clearly believes that it has a positive story to talk about.

That’s true if the comparator is the Conservative Party. Both the government and the opposition are willing to commit to any rhetoric – both are currently committed to the UK becoming a net-zero carbon country by 2050, and John McDonnell is considering moving to a 2030 target, both voted to declare a “climate emergency” – but are less keen to commit to concrete measures to meet the ambition. Labour has a better offer on increasing public transport than the Conservatives but on the target which should surely be the bare minimum – not expanding Britain’s airport capacity, a decision which quite literally requires the government to do nothing – the two parties are peas in a pod.

If politics reverts to a simple conflict behind Labour and Conservatives, the issue is a good wedge theme for Labour. If it has reverted to multi-party politics, as the polls and local elections currently suggest it has, the opposition may simply be raising the salience of an issue on which its opponents in the Green and Liberal Democrat parties currently have a better set of answers.

Theresa May’s legacy project is not going to work

Downing Street is busily trying to write a better obituary for Theresa May’s time in office than a disastrous general election and a failure to leave the EU. But as her response to Thangam Debbonaire’s opening question on the environment indicated, this isn’t going to work. It really doesn’t matter if in your last few months you set some targets for the next prime minister. What matters is what you can say about your own record – and May’s issue is she can’t really say very much. Future historians seeking to rehabilitate her will suffer the same problem.

Conservative whips may soon have a Theresa May problem

The most interesting answer May gave was one she didn’t. Ian Blackford asked if she would vote to ensure a no-deal Brexit wouldn’t happen. There was, obviously, an easy answer available: that no Brexit is worse than no deal. Indeed, that’s the answer that both her possible successors as prime minister are giving on the campaign trail.

That she instead avoided the question means that the government whips may find that on the backbenches, May cannot always be relied upon to vote with the government.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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