Five things we learned from this week’s PMQs

The climate crisis has become a new battleground for Labour and the Conservatives. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Climate is the new battleground for the big two...

Last week, Boris Johnson made what was intended to look like a significant concession on the environment. The UK government, it was announced, would no longer allow foreign aid to fund coal-fired power stations. 

So far, so green. But it quickly emerged that next to no aid was being spent on such projects anyway — instead going towards oil and gas-fired power. So, Jeremy Corbyn asked, would the government commit to withholding cash for those fossil fuels too?

The Prime Minister was evasive, instead trumpeting the government’s record on reducing carbon emissions. Popularising that message is a key plank of the Conservatives’ planned strategic pivot back to social liberals once 31 January passes. 

With the climate crisis increasing in salience with every electoral event, the fortunes of both Labour and the Conservatives will depend on just which side’s case is more convincing — or, more accurately, how effectively Labour can undermine Johnson’s. 

...and foreign affairs will remain a dividing line

Unusually, Corbyn changed tack midway through his six questions — moving from climate to the government’s record on Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and its failure to challenge Donald Trump over his Middle East plan. Johnson, predictably, replied that the government was on the side of peace, human rights and democracy abroad — not Trump — drawing an explicit contrast with Corbyn. 

It attests to the tricky wicket the government must defend abroad — and the balance it believes it must strike between robustness on national security and independence of mind in the case of Trump administration. 

Brexit is as much a risk as an opportunity for the SNP 

Play it again, Ian? The SNP’s Westminster leader again led on Brexit, for obvious reasons. Kicking off his duo of questions, Blackford noted — indeed, he was one of the first to note — that the UK would leave the EU on 31 January, and urged the 27 remaining member states to “leave a light on” for Scotland. 

It’s a familiar story — and the SNP hope it will prove an electorally lucrative one. But, in reply, Johnson blitzed Blackford with a series of questions on the mechanics of independence: will there be a border should Scotland rejoin the EU? How hard will it be? And who will foot the bill?

Blackford hit back with more invective on Westminster’s ignorance. Neither party is answering the same question on independence — and who eventually emerges victorious after the next plebiscite will depend on just which one the Scottish electorate thinks is most important. 

“Levelling up” is exposing an unequal Tory party

Paul Howell, the new Conservative MP for Sedgefield, County Durham — once home to Tony Blair — urged the Prime Minister to agree to HS2 and improve the north’s connectivity to London. Other members of the new intake echoed his words. So contentious was one such intervention that it was greeted with a mass howl of: “No!”

Hastings and Rye’s Sally Ann-Hart, meanwhile, asked for more investment in her south coast constituency — namechecking the “levelling up” branding being pushed by the government as it seeks to turn regional inequality into an electoral asset. 

On such questions of state intervention, Tory opinion is far from unanimous. While 85 seats is a large working majority for Johnson, it may yet prove an insufficient block on Tory rebellion. 

For the Tories, the demons of Bercowism have been exorcised

The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, closed the session with a personal statement, in which he revealed that he and the Commons clerks would publish any advice he received on questions of procedure that diverged from precedent. 

One could be forgiven for assuming it was delivered with an audience of one in mind: Hoyle’s predecessor, John Bercow. Or that it was a thank you to those Tories who elected him in such overwhelming numbers.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.