This latest session of Prime Minister’s Questions today followed a spate of defeats for Boris Johnson’s government in the House of Lords. The Tory leader has seen no less than five votes go the wrong way for him this week on his Brexit deal. You might have expected it to be an easy on for the Labour leader, then. But the Brexit deal didn’t get a look in as Jeremy Corbyn challenged the Prime Minister on universal credit.
How much of a £300 bonus should low-paid workers be able to keep? Is it right that some see only £75 of it? That’s the reality of universal credit, Corbyn explained. He quipped: “If the Prime Minister can show me that’s just and fair, I’ll buy him a vegan roll from Greggs myself.” He attacked the benefit for its “punitive and vicious” five-week wait for the first payment, cited the spiralling use of food banks in the UK, and challenged the Prime Minister to admit that there is a link between poverty and the two-child limit.
Johnson employed his characteristic bluster, bowling through the questions without really answering. Instead, he argued that all’s well – wages are up, poverty is down, and the economy is growing, according to the government – before moving on to discuss the Labour leadership race. “Labour is supposed to have had a period of reflection since the election,” he said, before he declared: “What they want is even more Corbynism.” Pointing to a survey of Labour members that suggested Corbyn was their favourite Labour leader, Johnson said “I want him to know that those sentiments are warmly shared by many on this side of the House”.
The accusation is in line with the framing of the leadership race so far. To what extent is each candidate like, or not like, Corbyn? Frontrunners Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey have been playing this game carefully. The Camden MP is busily reassuring the left by pushing the line that he doesn’t want to “trash” the last four years. On the other hand, Long-Bailey has made an appeal beyond the Corbynite left, denying that she is the ‘continuity’ candidate and vowing to take the party in “completely different directions”. But she has also been nurturing enthusiasm among her core supporters who backed the outgoing leader. The Prime Minister’s claim that members want more Corbynism is not altogether wrong.
“Labour will never abandon the poor of this country,” Corbyn replied. And Labour has consistently argued for the government to scrap UC. The party said it would replace the system with an alternative one at the last election. But what that alternative looks like is yet to be set out in detail, and anyone looking to lead the party will have to tackle that question. Leadership candidate Lisa Nandy made a speech this morning to say that she would give claimants a role in designing an “empowering” welfare system. More detail is needed, and we can hope that we get to see what all the candidates envisage for the future of welfare as the leadership contest starts to explore policy detail over the weeks ahead.