Today’s Prime Minister’s Questions wasn’t exactly comfortable for Theresa May, but neither was it catastrophic. The session has been running along the same lines since the snap election result: Jeremy Corbyn has plenty of material to play with in terms of a government in disarray that isn’t confronting some of the most important domestic issues, but he never really manages to leave May looking less authoritative than when the session started.
Today he focused on the problems with the roll-out of Universal Credit, which is spreading from being the concern of welfare policy specialists in parliament to being a political row. Conveniently, the Tory rebel ringleader on this matter Heidi Allen had a question on the Order Paper, which she was always going to use to ask about Universal Credit, and so the session had a flow from leaders’ exchanges to backbench questions.
Corbyn even had a good line about the cost of the helpline for the benefit, which charges 55p a minute for claimants who are often phoning because they have not received their money and are penniless. May dodged this, and the Labour leader oddly didn’t pick it up again. It could have been a pretty powerful symbol of a government squeezing the poor until the pips squeak, but Corbyn left that to others to pick up.
May is naturally trying to seem more authoritative, but she made some odd choices during the session. She asked the Commons to remember what happened at Labour conference, which led to jeers from the other side and baffled looks on the faces of the MPs behind her, who were clearly wondering whether she was going to refer to how happy the conference was, how confident Labour appeared in its identity under Corbyn, and how the party really does now want to be a government in waiting rather than a protest movement. The Prime Minister was introducing the topic so she could point to the way housing charities and councils had rubbished Corbyn’s housing policies, but surely conference season isn’t something she wants to encourage anyone to think of, given her own dire experience.