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At PMQs today, Theresa May chose to insult doctors and nurses on the 69th anniversary of the NHS

‘The Prime Minister found £1bn to keep her job – why can’t she find the same amount for the doctors and nurses in their jobs?’ said Corbyn, and May refused to answer

Holly Baxter
Wednesday 05 July 2017 13:36 BST
Corbyn: May 'found £1bn to keep her own job' but won't find funds to end public sector pay freezes

Ever since the election result confirmed that the Corbyn phenomenon wasn’t the collective teenage delusion right-wing pundits were happy to label it as, Prime Minister’s Questions has made for interesting viewing. So it was today, when Theresa May and the leader of the opposition debated for just the second time since the general election, one visibly weakened and the other visibly emboldened by the sea change in media commentary surrounding them.

Let’s be honest: the 69th anniversary of the NHS was never going to play well for May. She’s spent the last fortnight embroiled in rows about public sector pay, with a few of her own (such as Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove) breaking rank to announce that they’ve suddenly and mysteriously had a change of heart about how much nurses and teachers should be paid now there might be a Tory leadership contest on the horizon. Today, as the blackened husk of Grenfell Tower continued to be searched for bodies by recovery workers, May retreated into the mode she knows best: avoiding discussion of human beings, wrangling over numbers and statistics when presented with a difficult issue, and repeating that “Labour destroyed the economy” every time a threatening advancement comes her way.

Corbyn’s habit of bringing up people’s names and stories at PMQs was ridiculed when he first became leader, but this time round it didn’t feel so amateur. It has, in fact, quietly managed to position himself as the polar opposite of Theresa May: as down-to-earth, as understanding, as the opposite of the “metropolitan elite” figure tabloids often tried to paint him as. No one’s forgetting that widely-shared image of him with his arm around a traumatised victim of the Grenfell Tower fire juxtaposed with Theresa May awkwardly stood beside a couple of selected firefighters any time soon (much less an ex-Tory cabinet minister stating that she showed no “humanity” in the situation). And when Corbyn quotes a teacher called David who’s “watched more people leave my profession than enter it over many years” and Theresa May replies that “we have to restrain ourselves [from upping public sector pay] because we inherited the biggest deficit in history from Labour”, it only cements that impression.

“I know people feel very strongly about the issue of their pay,” May started out, which made her sound about as relatable as that time she said her childhood had offered an excellent opportunity to mix with ordinary people. “The Government will consider reports very carefully … We need to live within our means.” She tried to make Labour’s magic money tree mentality a theme, but it fell flat. “I understand it’s been hard for people while we’ve been dealing with Labour’s mismanagement of the economy,” she argued, which seemed a weak riposte to demanding questions about the stagnating wages and increasingly difficult lives of nurses, doctors, teachers and paramedics.

Jeremy Corbyn: 'The pay cap is recklessly exploiting the goodwill of public servants'

“Nurses are going to food banks,” Corbyn said; “Labour’s way means bankrupting the country,” May ploughed on. She referred to Labour as a “government-in-waiting” with an effort at derision, but in context it was hard to find the idea as funny as her frontbenchers seemed to themselves.

“Seven years of tax cuts for the rich and tax cuts for corporations don’t make for a very happy birthday for the NHS,” Corbyn said. Yelling at the top of her voice, May stated that if we don’t cut the deficit, Britain will end up like Greece, which has just seen massive cuts to its own national health service.

The stats and the reports and the data have started to feel disheartening and dishonest to listen to. There were a few minutes where May and Corbyn were back-and-forthing about whose numbers on nurses were correct; it felt like the point was being monumentally missed. Corbyn said in-work poverty was unacceptably high; May retorted that absolute poverty was low, as though splitting hairs about measurements of wealth were the real issue facing a country hit hard by austerity. “The best route out of poverty is being in work” didn’t land well as one of May’s catchphrases when delivered seconds after in-work poverty had been mentioned as one of the biggest threats to young people today.

PMQs: Corbyn looks incredulous as May 'reminds' him of Greece

“Can the Prime Minister take some tough choices instead of offering platitudes?” asked Corbyn, and it was hard not to agree. “The Prime Minister found £1bn to keep her job – why can’t she find the same amount for the doctors and nurses in their jobs?” May failed to face that question head-on, which looked, especially on such a significant day for the NHS, frankly insulting towards its workers. She had the opportunity to hint that changes might be made soon, but she dug her heels in instead.

“The Prime Minister simply doesn’t get it,” said Corbyn halfway through, before May launched into another monologue about how Labour believed in “public spending without paying for it” (the £1bn DUP payment apparently conveniently forgotten). It feels like he might be right. Theresa May has started to look like she’s been fully swallowed up by Westminster machinations, and has forgotten there are people behind the numbers she so loves to play with.

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