PMQs review: The one with the elephant in the room
PUBLISHED: 15:14 03 April 2019 | UPDATED: 15:29 03 April 2019
The UK is in crisis. Today we talked about TV licences for the over-75s.
This was that rarest of things - a genuinely intriguing PMQs session. The first since Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn became bezzy mates, with the Labour leader helping the prime minister bypass her perfidious backbenchers. How would they deal with it?
The answer - SPOILER ALERT! - was to ignore it and talk about TV licences instead. But first came a question from David Amess, a hardline Tory Brexiteer notable mainly for being duped into speaking out against a fictional drug called cake by Brass Eye.
He used his question to push his cause for Southend, the town he represents, to become a city via a “meaningful vote”. May said this was a “clever” reference, which suggests her definition of clever is broad enough to include those things which are not. Which at least explains Chris Grayling’s continued presence in the Cabinet.
Corbyn, who rose to a less muted response than usual, had an issue. PMQs is a pugnacious affair, so he could hardly lead on “this disastrous Tory Brexit” unless he quietly followed it up with “which I’m later going to discuss how I can help getting through”. So he ignored the elephant in the room altogether, a solution which seemed to suit both.
“Over one million over-75s currently receive a free TV licence - a scheme established by the last Labour government,” he read out.
“This government transferred the scheme to the BBC without guaranteeing its funding. Will the government take responsibility and guarantee free TV licences for the over 75s?” Somebody wants to watch Gardeners’ World for free in six years’ time.
May replied: “We’ve been clear what we expect the BBC to do and frankly I think the BBC is in a position to be able to do that with the income they receive.”
Mr Corbyn reiterated the previous Labour government’s support for the free TV licence scheme, adding: “I think it should be an item of public policy not sent to somebody else to administer on behalf of the government.”
It was one of a number of rare pieces of praise for the Blair/Brown administration from Corbyn, who normally gives the impression he doesn’t think there’s been a Labour government since 1951. They had “reduced poverty across the whole country,” he said.
“I didn’t realise he was such a fan of the last Labour government - he seemed to spend his entire time voting against it,” said May, in what I think the young people would describe as a burn.
SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, who rises to increasingly audible groans, asked why the PM continued “to ignore Scotland’s voices”.
“Why has she restricted herself to inviting the leader of the opposition, why has she not invited the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government into formal talks?,” he asked. “Why is it that Scotland’s voices are being ignored by this prime minister and this government?
May replied she was meeting the first minister of Scotland and Wales this afternoon. Blackford muttered something about the talks not being formal and the rest of his MPs looked like they were thinking wistfully of Angus Robertson.
Nigel Adams, the Wales Office minister and Brexiteer who resigned this morning from a job nobody knew he held, rose. Was he to deliver the Geoffrey Howe-style oration which would ultimately dethrone the premier?
No. He asked if the PM would put her weight behind a campaign for “step-free access for Selby railway station”.
Elsewhere it was a succession of blue-on-blue sorties.
Lee Rowley, an obscure Tory Brexiteer, pointed out that last week May had said “the biggest threat to our standing in the world, to our defence, and to our economy” was Corbyn, asking: “In her judgment what now qualifies him for involvement in Brexit?”
The PM replied that “every member of this House is involved in Brexit”, and said “the public want us to work across this House to find a solution that delivers on Brexit, delivers on the referendum, and gives people their faith the politicians have done what they asked and actually delivered for them”.
These went on for some time. Finally, Julian Lewis, a ludicrous Tory headbanger who looks like he eats an entire swan for lunch and sounds like Officer Crabtree from ‘Allo ‘Allo! asked: “Why is a Conservative PM who repeatedly told us that no deal is better than a bad deal approaching Labour MPs to block a WTO Brexit when most Conservative MPs want us to leave the EU with a clean break?”.
“Because you won’t vote for it!,” shouted Antoinette Sandbach, a fellow Tory MP and a Remainer. It was the most sage thing said all day.