Today Jeremy Corbyn delivered a strong emotionally-charged performance in contrast to Theresa May’s dry, functional approach.
The Labour leader had laser like focus on the NHS and social care throughout his questions – including providing a robust defence of the Blair government’s record on health spending. This always seems like strong ground to gravitate towards, given our record as the party of the health service – we founded it, and we have always defended it. The defence of the Blair and Brown era will also go some way to placating those on the backbenches who have concerns about Corbyn’s leadership.
He began by focussing on the sustainability and transformation plans (STPs) which the British medical association (BMA) believes amount to a hidden £22bn cut to the NHS, which risks starving the health service of the resources required.
May’s answer was perfunctory, with an attempt to deflect the premise of the question, by arguing that any savings made will all then be re-invested. She also made reference to the now heavily debunked figure of increased Tory investment in the NHS, which even the Conservative chair of the health select committee, Sarah Wollaston, has said isn’t accurate. Personally I’m more inclined to believe the BMA than a Tory prime minister on the NHS.
From here, Corbyn really hit his stride – linking the strain on the health service to the social care crisis, backing up his claim with the evidence of a million people having to go to hospital as a result of a lack of social care. He spoke of the “neglect” of older people, which leads them to A&E, when they “should be looked after at home or in care homes”. This is why Barbara Keeley, Labour’s shadow minister for social care and mental health, was sat next to Corbyn today.
He moved onto Labour’s record in government, saying that “health spending trebled” and as a result satisfaction was at its highest level. He linked the cuts to the NHS to the government’s choice to cut corporation tax. This is a particularly strong approach – it must always be made clear that when it comes to their choices the Conservatives are pick tax giveaways for the wealthiest over investing in our public services that most help the vulnerable.
May’s answers became repetitive, with the various different approaches the government have taken being listed by name. It is welcome that her pre-prepared jibes and one-liners were ditched this week, but the constant restatement of how the Conservative’s have put a triple lock on pensions and have created a social care fund is meaningless when contrasted with the cold hard reality in the ground. It doesn’t matter what nice names you have put on the policies: if they do not deliver it does not matter.
There was one angle of questioning from Corbyn, that perhaps needs to be treated with a little more caution in future, as it was where May seemed at her strongest. The recently floated policy of NHS patients having to show a passport to access non-emergency services was ground where the prime minister seemed very comfortable – she could easily paint the leader of the opposition as being laid back about immigration and people taking something they have no right to use. Whilst Corbyn is of course correct to describe this as a distraction, the cost of care for foreigners is a tiny amount relatively speaking. The Tory proposal is a fundamentally flawed policy which could easily mean that those who don’t have passports would be put off going to the doctor, which would in turn cost the NHS more in the long term – his questioning here needed to be much tighter, as it risks playing into the Conservatives’ hands. On this, they can portray themselves as being the stable hand on the tiller, of both the economy and immigration.
The most notable question from Labour MPs this week came from Tulip Siddiq, with her inquiry as to what the government is actually doing about the lot of her constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is a political prisoner in Iran.
Angela Eagle asked about the social care crisis, which led to a visibly rattled May response. The prime minister responded with an almost petulant answer stating that she had already answered questions of this sort. It doesn’t look great when the only response to Eagle’s statistics and facts is to rebuff the question. May may not like talking about government failures on social care – but she cannot simply dismiss questions she doesn’t like.
Corbyn, meanwhile, is improving on delivery as he continues the drive for Labour unity.