LabourList‘s PMQs write-up last week was titled ‘Legal aids attack overshadowed by racism row‘. Much the same could be said about this afternoon’s session, although the overshadowing of Labour’s preferred topic was even more obvious – to the extent that commentators started calling it ‘LOTOQs’, for it seemed to be the leader of the opposition in the hot seat rather than the Prime Minister.
For Theresa May’s penultimate PMQs as Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn decided to focus on the climate crisis, from the government’s inaction on illegal levels of air pollution to falling investment in clean energy. The UK is on track to miss its climate targets by almost 50 years, the Labour leader pointed out. That ‘net zero’ carbon emissions target we’ve heard so much about? The one set at 2050 rather than 2025 or 2030, as demanded by Extinction Rebellion and Labour for a Green New Deal respectively? At this rate, the government won’t meet it until 2099.
“This government has spent too long treating the climate emergency like a PR exercise, setting out targets it knows full well it isn’t on track to meet,” Corbyn said. “We’re already seeing the catastrophic impact of climate change, from wildfires in Yorkshire to flooding in Wales. If this government doesn’t change course now it will be the next generation that pays the price – not to mention the millions of people already at risk in the Global South. The climate emergency cannot be left to the market. Labour takes the climate crisis seriously, we got parliament to declare a climate emergency, and in office we will kick start a green industrial revolution to safeguard our future and transform our economy.”
This is the message that Labour wanted to put across today – but it’s not the one that cut through. The Prime Minister had decided to focus on Labour’s antisemitism crisis, and she did skilfully weave the subject into every answer. Briefly addressing Corbyn’s question first, May would quickly pivot back to the strong criticism that Labour’s handling of antisemitism complaints has received every time she took to the despatch box. On her first turn, she held up and quoted the full-page newspaper advert signed by 67 Labour peers appearing in the Guardian today. Later, she cited Trevor Phillips – former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and party member – and repeated his description of Labour as a “textbook case of institutional racism”.
At first, Corbyn responded to the criticisms in the usual way. The Labour Party totally opposes racism in any form and antisemitism has no place in our society or political parties, he said. Neither does any form of racism, Corbyn continued, before highlighting polling by Hope Not Hate, according to which “60% of Tory party members think Islam is a threat to Western civilisation”. Next, he hit back with the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment.
Theresa May’s conclusion was typically forceful and strongly-worded: “Look at what he’s done to our party. We’ll never let him do it to our country.” For many Labour MPs and some members of the ruling body, the latest PMQs will highlight the need for the party to get on with resolving its antisemitism crisis. As it stands, a summer of personal attacks, relentless infighting and negative headlines awaits, even with Boris Johnson about to enter No10.