The Thatch is back. For her first prime minister’s questions Theresa May could have been anyone. She could have been Sensitive Theresa, Caring Theresa, Funny Theresa.
Any Theresa she cared to reinvent herself as. Instead, she said: “Tonight, Matthew, I’m going to be Maggie.” Why be your own woman when you can be the one whom large sections of the Tory party have never fallen out of love with?
Close your eyes and the years could have been rolled back to the early 1980s. An uncompromising, graceless and brittle figure at the despatch box and a horde of semi-priapic backbenchers braying. The Tories might have a far better record at appointing female leaders than Labour but their male MPs still leave a lot to be desired.
The similarities with the mid-80s didn’t end with a female prime minister. The Labour benches are in as much disarray now as they were then, with a leader who fails to inspire any confidence in his own MPs. Jeremy Corbyn’s arrival in the chamber was greeted with barely a flicker of interest by even his frontbench. Corbyn tried to pretend this was all normal as he prepared for his first confrontation with May but he couldn’t conceal his humiliation.
Corbyn started promisingly by holding the prime minister to account for her speech outside Downing Street the week before, in which she had laid out her social justice programme. Yet somehow, despite holding all the aces – after all, May had been home secretary for six years in a government under which inequality had significantly worsened – Corbyn failed to land any killer punches.
For a brief moment, it had looked as if he might score heavily with a reference to Boris Johnson’s track record of casual racism and open insults to every country on the planet but he missed the opportunity to make the point stick. Instead, May was allowed to get away with just ignoring her foreign secretary. For now. Boris is going to come in for this kind of flak wherever he goes and his position as a serious diplomatic negotiator must be untenable.
Beginning to realise Corbyn had nothing to offer that could hurt her, May began to channel her inner, hardcore Thatch. “You call it austerity,” she growled, in a voice chillingly reminiscent of her predecessor. “I prefer to call it living within our means.” Here was the grocer’s daughter made flesh. The ordinary housewife – albeit one, like Maggie, who was also conveniently married to an extremely supportive millionaire – who looked after the shillings and pence on the nation’s weekly shopping bill. At the first sighting of Iron Lady 2.0, the more incontinent Tory backbenches had their first premature ejaculation.
Thrilled to have negotiated her first sticky patch, Theresa went for 110% Maggie. When Corbyn made the schoolboy error of bringing up job insecurity, May reached for her one pre-scripted gag. “I suspect that many members on the opposition benches might be familiar with an unscrupulous boss – a boss who does not listen to his workers, a boss who requires some of his workers to double their workload and maybe even a boss who exploits the rules to further his own career,” she said.
Each word was dragged out with the comic timing of someone failing an audition for Britain Hasn’t Got Talent but the Tories greeted it with hysterical laughter. A mixture of creepy unctuousness and childhood regression to Mummy. “More,” they cried. Theresa obliged. Lowering her voice to a register even Maggie might have struggled with and adopting an exaggerated, pantomime gurn, she added: “Remind you of anyone?” Behind her, several other backbenchers rushed out to get some wet wipes.
Thrilled the Cameron shackles were now off and that the happy nasty party days were back in vogue, the Conservative Stuart Andrew celebrated by making a gay joke. “Growing up on a council estate, I found it tough coming out – as a Conservative.” Boom, boom, Stuart. The old ones are the old ones. On the front bench, Boris looked rather annoyed that someone else was getting the laughs. Perhaps the Commons wanted to hear his one about the piccaninnies and Nurse Ratchet?
The nursery was becoming rowdier and rowdier. For May, this was all getting a bit too cosy and familiar. Time to remind people who was boss. She looked around for the weakest person in the Commons. After Tim Farron had offered her a gracious welcome, May responded by humiliating him. “My party is much bigger than yours,” she sneered. It was classless, graceless and unnecessary but it still provoked roars of approval. Blessed are the meek, for they will be roundly trashed.
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