Prime Minister’s Questions review: Cameron can’t answer and Corbyn can’t drop it
Previously on PMQs…
Last week’s clash of leaders was about two words: tax credits. It’s become a toxic subject in the Conservative party, with even their own MPs slamming plans to cut benefits to the country’s worst off.
Corbyn pressed Cameron six times on whether anyone would lose out as a result of government plans, and Cameron – predictably, for surely the whole point of the policy is that people lose out and the government saves money – was not able to offer a guarantee. He sidestepped clumsily; a rabbit caught in red headlights, and looked like he wanted it all to be over: a rarity for the normally polished PM.
“If it’s broken, bang on about it…”
This week, Corbyn followed the ‘if it’s broke, bang on about it all you can’ mantra that works so well in opposition, opening again with a flurry of questions on tax credits. “He’s had a week to think about it”, he said, the Tories jeering, “and I want to ask him one more time. Can he guarantee that next April nobody is going to be worse off as a result of tax credits?”
Cameron offered weak ripostes, rolling off the usual suspects to show that the Tories care about the poor – raising tax-free income allowance to £11,000 (a welcome move) and the new national “living” wage of £7.20 – but again refusing to give a guarantee. But he was able to dampen Corbyn’s blows by making it clear that his party will change their plans in the Autumn statement. “At that point, in exactly 3 weeks time, I’ll be able to answer his question”.
Corbyn followed it up by demonstrating a real life example: a Gulf War veteran living in “fear and trepidation” at the prospect of having his benefits cuts. Cameron came out swinging. “What I would say to the serving soldier, is he is now dealing with an opposition leader that said he couldn’t see any use for British forces anywhere in the world, at any time. That serving soldier wouldn’t have a job if the honourable gentleman got anywhere near power.”
It generated the kind of response that, sadly, we can expect more of at PMQs now that the honeymoon of the new, polite form of politics is over. Corbyn waiting for quiet at the dispatch box like a head teacher that’s lost control of a rowdy class (he stood in silence for a full 15 seconds at one point before speaker John Bercow intervened), red-faced Tories shouting their lungs out with the kind of bluster that makes the public cringe.
The NHS Battleground
Cameron was far more assured in his answers when Corbyn turned to the NHS, pressing the PM for a guarantee that there would be no “winter crisis” in the NHS, as there was last year, where record numbers of patients waited more than four hours for treatment from A&E.
Cameron – again – could not possibly offer this guarantee, for he knows as well as doctors do that the NHS will reach breaking point over the next few months. But he was able to get in his comfort zone, reeling off improvements to the NHS under the Conservative government – more doctors, more nurses, more diagnostic tests, more operations, more outpatient appointments – giving the appearance of a man who knew what he was talking about.
PMQs petered out with Corbyn fluffing his lines on the last questions – more of a general statement about the state of the health service – allowing Cameron free reign to again list his achievements and big up the Conservative’s £10bn NHS investment, before ending with a last stinger. “The countries he admires, with their crazy socialist plans, cut their health services, and hurt the people that need help the most”.
Corbyn will have to rise above the personal attacks if he wants to successfully challenge the PM. He needs to focus on clear, sharp questions. The Labour leader was right to return to tax credit this week, but there is only so much he can extract from that gold mine, and he’s going to need a new angle soon. His line of questioning on the NHS shows that he’s hasn’t quite found it yet.
Next week on PMQs: Docs on strike
In case you missed it, Jeremy Hunt offered a new contract to junior doctors yesterday, hailing an “11% pay rise”. But the devil was in the detail: the new proposals did little to address key concerns on working conditions and unsociable hours pay, and the British Medical Association – who negotiate the contract on behalf of doctors – weren’t half annoyed. They accused the government, quite rightly, of “megaphone diplomacy” for briefing the media before the decision makers.
With a ballot on junior doctor strike action starting on Thursday – and industrial action looking increasingly likely – this could get very embarrassing for Cameron and pals. There’s no PMQs next week because Parliament is in recess, but the next one will be on the day the ballot ends: November 18. Expect Corbyn to cash in.