Lloyd Evans

John Bercow spares Jeremy Corbyn’s blushes at PMQs

John Bercow spares Jeremy Corbyn's blushes at PMQs
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Would she resign over Windrush? Having spent nearly eight years at the heart of government, Theresa May was clearly deeply involved in the scandal, and as PMQs began she seemed nervous and ill-at-ease. Lispy almost. She started on safe ground by thanking the Windrush generation for their ‘massive contribution’ to modern Britain. Then she garbled Windrush and turned it into ‘Windruss’. Then came this:

‘For those who have mistakenly received letters challenging them, I want to... apologise to them – and to say sorry to anyone who (has been) caused confusion and anxiety...as a result of this.’

Prezza couldn’t have put it better. She was floundering and Corbyn had yet to ask his first question. He accused the PM of ‘brushing off’ a query about an immigrant wrongly denied NHS treatment. May was terse. He was not brushed off, she said. ‘Clinicians have been looking at his case and he will be receiving treatment.’

This didn’t bother Corbyn who now turned his smart-bomb towards its target. The Home Office, he said, destroyed the landing-cards belonging to an entire generation of immigrants: 

‘As the then-Home Secretary, did she sign off on that decision?’

No,’ said, May, curtly. ‘The decision to destroy the landing-cards was taken in 2009. Under a Labour government.’

Waves of ridicule crashed across the house at Corbyn. He stood there, for a couple of seconds, like a stranded bather staring at a deadly tsunami. But Squirmageddon was brought to a halt, far too soon, by Speaker Bercow. He popped up, as ever, to demonstrate that the more he speaks the less he says.

‘The leader of the opposition,’ he nagged wearily. ‘The leader of the opposition must be heard. And will be heard.’

And he squashed himself back down. Only for the storm to resume again. Up he popped a second time, now with a nastier and more demotic tone.

‘There was a lot of this YESTERDAY,’ he hissed, like a football coach about to lose the dressing-room. ‘Very NOISY and extremely STUPID barracking. And it must stop NOW. The public absolutely DESPISES that sort of behaviour whenever it takes place. Cut it OUT!’

These interruptions saved Corbyn (who had correctly sat down while the Speaker heckled and abused the Commons). Thus the Labour leader was spared the ignominy of having to stand, mute and blinking, as a torrent of Tory abuse broke over his head. And the public were cheated of a chance to see Corbyn’s mettle being tested in the furnace of parliamentary scorn. The Speaker refused to let the debate take its natural course. Instead, he inserted another of his Brand Bercow ad-breaks into PMQs.

Corbyn finished with a self-administered injury. He characterised May’s policy as, ‘vital documents being shredded, ministers blaming officials’. But May hadn’t blamed officials. She had blamed ministers, explicitly. Labour ministers.

Perhaps Corbyn is deaf. Certainly he’s got two abiding problems. First, he doesn’t listen to the political duel in which he is the chief swordsman. Secondly, if he finds himself robbed of his foil, he continues to thrust and slash and parry, with an empty hand, as if he were still holding a lethal blade.

But this issue isn’t over. Labour strategists will have noticed May’s nervy and bumbling start. And they’ll be gagging for a rematch.