Jeremy Corbyn posed some good questions today but he was absolutely crushed by Theresa May’s imperious performance. Judging by the look of relief on her face when she finally sat down, she was actually very nervous; to compensate for that she came out fighting and aggressively tore into the Labour leader. She mocked him, batted away parts of questions she didn’t wish to answer and was quick to get a grip on the details in reply when necessary. By the end, the Conservative benches were utterly buoyant and the misery of the Labour Party had been compounded.
On the evidence of today, Corbyn will be no match for the new Prime Minister. She went straight for the jugular, having been congratulated on becoming the second woman Prime Minister she said:
You refer to me as the second woman Prime Minister, in my years here in this House I’ve long heard the Labour Party asking what the Conservative Party does for women – well, just keep making us Prime Minister.
When Corbyn came back with his favourite line of attack, so-called “austerity”. She came back with a reply that plays well to the majority of the electorate that worry about the nation’s finances and want a frugal and economically responsible government:
He calls it austerity. I call it living within our means. He talks about austerity, but it is actually not about saddling our children and grandchildren with debt.
The highlight of a barnstorming first performance came when Corbyn dithered straight into a trap by setting the PM up for an easy joke executed rather masterfully, as he scrutinised her first speech and raised the issue of “unscruplous bosses”, she came back with:
“I suspect that there are many members on the Opposition benches who might be familiar with an ‘unscrupulous boss’,” said Mrs May with a wry smile, . “A boss who doesn’t listen to his workers. A boss who requires some of his workers to double their workload. Maybe even a boss who exploits the rules to further his own career.”
Then, before delivering the withering final line, she leant over the dispatch box, hunched like a hawk about to devour a helpless, pitiful little bird, and glared at her defeated prey:
“Remind him of anybody?”
The Thatcher comparisons were obvious and surely intentional. That will be the dominant image for the watching public, the Labour leader wiped out, the opposition utterly limp.
Aside from that, her response to Edward Leigh’s question, which attempted to force the PM into promising that the UK would leave the Single Market, was very notable indeed. May did not rule out remaining in the Single Market and talked – as she has done before – about “controls” of free movement rather than ending it. This is rapidly developing into an official government line. It leaves open the possibility of moving into the EEA, which means we are in the Single Market. This suggests that the two broad aims of our EU negotiations may be remaining in the Single Market but trying to obtain concessions of free movement. EEA membership may allow us to restrict movement to economically active migrants, or even use safeguard provisions within the EEA Agreement to manage the incoming numbers on an ongoing basis.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty