Great Britain

Six things we learned from this week’s PMQs

Don’t expect the Conservatives to stop attacking Corbyn — even when he’s gone  

Opening the session, Bim Afolami, one of the most ambitious — and highly rated — members of the Conservative intake of 2017, offered Boris Johnson the tamest delivery of the afternoon.  Did the Prime Minister agree that the government should continue doing all it could to combat terrorism — including the imposition of tougher sentencing for those convicted?

Johnson duly answered in the affirmative, with some gusto. Questions on national security such as Afolami’s have been reliable applause fodder for the PM and his predecessors ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader. And it is a bruise they will continue to punch no matter who succeeds him. 

Similarly, Johnson framed Labour’s leadership contest as an exercise in affirming its commitment to Corbyn — the Tories' biggest electoral asset. The leader of the opposition’s is a name we will hear plenty of over the next five years — regardless of who succeeds him. 

Labour is asking the right questions on welfare — but what is its answer?

Corbyn, for the first time in recent memory, devoted all six of his questions to welfare policy — and offered a strong critique of Universal Credit’s failures on its own terms. Workers at Greggs in receipt of the controversial benefit, he noted, would only keep £75 of a £300 bonus. Did that not fly in the face of everything Universal Credit was designed to do to make work pay?

A good question. But what exchanges like today’s expose is the black hole where Labour’s own solution should be. While we know they would scrap UC, Corbyn has never provided an answer as to what should replace it. His successor must. And with Lisa Nandy having delivered a major speech on welfare this morning, it is clear that at least some of the field get it.  

For Tories on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border, schools are the answer

Ben Bradley, the Tory MP for Mansfield, rose midway through the session to ask whether the Prime Minister would congratulate schools in his Nottinghamshire constituency — the first brick in the so-called Red Wall to fall in 2017 — on their improved performance. Evidence, he said, that the Tory election pledge to pump more cash into schools was hitting the right notes. 

Johnson happily obliged — but then proceeded to bash educational attainment in British schools, or Scottish schools, to be precise: which of course are the responsibility of Nicola Sturgeon’s devolved government. Both the question and the answer underline the importance of education to the Conservatives' air war: it allows them to burnish their credentials as stewards of public services in England, and, they hope, undermine the SNP’s claim to the same mantle in Scotland. 

The SNP have reason to love the Lords

Peers this week voted to amend the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill half to death — and of particular interest to Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, was its decision to vote to reintroduce the Sewel Convention. 

The convention requires devolved legislatures to consent to Westminster legislation that impacts them — and, in a week which saw all three of them withhold consent from Johnson’s Brexit deal, the Lords’ decision was fraught with constitutional symbolism. 

For Blackford, it was grist to the mill: more evidence, he claimed, that Westminster would never listen to Scotland. The SNP has never nominated peers out of principle, but the upper house has served it well. With every week, its line of attack on Scottish independence becomes clearer — just as references to education and currency from Johnson delineate the Tory line of defence. 

If 2024 is to go as well as 2019, blue must mean green for the Tories 

The much-vaunted Liberal Democrat surge was the dog that didn’t bark for the Tories at the election. That Alex Chalk, the Conservative MP for Cheltenham, was even asking a question today was evidence enough of Jo Swinson’s failure: the Gloucestershire seat was the closest thing to a dead cert the party had.  

Alas, it remains a mere marginal — albeit with a smaller Tory majority. How to keep it? Chalk’s decision to ask Johnson whether he intended to make his government the greenest ever is a big clue. The next five years will be an exercise in sanding the sharper edges off the government’s battered reputation among Remainers and social liberals. 

On Brexit, something has to give 

Reality intruded with the last question of the session, when Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s Westminster leader, asked whether firms in Great Britain would face no regulatory barriers when shipping to Northern Ireland. Emphatically not, Johnson said. But how can he be so sure?

With Sajid Javid having promised divergence from EU rules this weekend, that guarantee now makes even less sense. At some point in the next nine months, the government will need to come clean on the trade off — or lack thereof.