Jeremy Corbyn was presented with an unexpected bonus in the shape of the chancellor’s confirmation, half an hour before PMQs began, of the government’s budget reversal on increased national insurance contributions for the self-employed.
May said she didn’t usually heed lectures from Corbyn, but that when it came to chaos he’d be the first person I’d turn to.
Corbyn suggested she should apologise for the stress caused to 4.8 million self-employed people in the UK and asked what measures she would take to fill the budgetary black hole following the NICs U-turn.
Jeremy Corbyn stuck to his prepared questions when he should have focused on NICs. May responded with her well-worn line about Labour borrowing plans that would bankrupt Britain.
Corbyn then dropped his line of questioning to ask what May would do about companies who forced their workers into bogus self-employment.
May pointed to the independent review on employment practices she has commissioned from Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts.
The exchange then moved on to school funding, with Corbyn urging May to listen to the complaints of headteachers all over the country who were desperately trying to balance the books after cuts.
He also brought up cuts to social care funding and benefits.
May accused Labour of opposing every policy to improve schools and, on helping the low-paid, she highlighted frozen VAT, fuel duty and measures to take the lowest paid out of taxation.
The good news for Corbyn is that PMQs may be entertaining theatre that has a lot of influence on leaders’ standing with their MPs and some impact on the way the public perceives them, but it is not ultimately decisive. Just ask William Hague.
This ought to be a consolation because, on a day when May has just had to execute the biggest U-turn of her prime ministerial career at considerable cost to the government’s reputation for economic competence, Corbyn failed dismally to exploit this at the dispatch box.
He had clearly prepared a set of questions about education and was not quick-witted enough to abandon them and instead devote all six questions to the NICs U-turn, as he should have done.
A better leader would have taunted her with a series of questions about why she defended the policy last week, or at least produced an effective soundbite as the SNP’s Angus Robertson did. Instead, even when Corbyn was commenting on NICs, he diverted into employers’ abuse of self-employment an important topic, but one where May has a case, because of the Taylor review.