Campaign gets off to a slow start with stilted PMQs – but Corbyn’s attacks on May hit home

Labour must cast doubt on the prime minister's character


Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn delivered their usual PMQs lines a bit more emphatically this afternoon, following yesterday’s announcement of a general election.

But the lines themselves didn’t change much. Corbyn focused on austerity, economic underperformance and Tory underinvestment in public services and May responded with her usual, meaningless soundbites about Labour bankrupting Britain.

Corbyn is right when he says that the Conservatives have seven weeks to defend seven years of broken promises. However, in nine months of parliamentary clashes, he has yet to seriously hurt May from a policy perspective. Given the polling lead currently enjoyed by the Conservatives, there is no reason to believe that more of the same messaging on public services and austerity will make much difference.

However, Corbyn’s most effective lines weren’t targeted at Conservative policies, but at May herself. He repeatedly questioned her refusal to participate in a TV debate during the election campaign, asking:

“If she’s so proud of her record, why won’t she debate it?”

The importance of this question can’t be overstated, given May’s almost pathological resistance to transparency. But in the coming days, Corbyn’s team must figure out more May-specific attack lines — questioning her character, her personal record, her attitude to the public and her fitness to be prime minister.

This may not be the kinder, gentler politics that Corbyn once hoped to implement, but it’s a necessity in the current context.

May does not have vast personal appeal, she has simply been able to capitalise on the deep public antipathy to the Labour leadership. Furthermore, her impulsive decision to call the general election has destabilised her number one selling point — that she is supposedly a grown-up politician who’ll get on with the job.

General elections are about personalities as well as policy, and the Tories are weaker on the former. Labour must take advantage.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

See: Five graphs you’ll need to understand Election ’17

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