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Tough-talking May makes confident PMQs debut

Britain's new prime minister confidently tackled questions from MPs during her first Prime Minister's Questions session, but gave no clear indication of her plans for Brexit. Samira Shackle reports from London.

Britain’s new prime minister confidently tackled questions from MPs during her first Prime Minister’s Questions session, but gave no clear indication of her plans for Brexit. Samira Shackle reports from London.
Theresa May made her debut at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, clashing with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn over austerity, home ownership, and Boris Johnson, and fielding questions from MPs on her plans for Brexit.

PMQs is a key part of Britain’s constitutional culture. For around half an hour every Wednesday in the House of Commons, the prime minister answers questions from MPs on a range of topics. The raucous atmosphere and swapping of insults between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition make it one of the country’s best known political events.

May has the firm backing of Conservative MPs, who showed their support with riotous applause and laughter. Most analysts agree that it was a self-assured performance from a political veteran. May is not known for her humor, but she went against expectations and made several jokes, mostly at the expense of Labour and its current leadership crisis.

“This was a very confident performance for a new prime minister in the chamber,” Adam Wildman, principal research consultant at the think tank ResPublica, told DW. “One of May’s first comments was to hope that she and Corbyn have a chance to face each other at PMQs for ‘years to come.’ The prime minister feels like she has the better of the leader of the opposition – and the muted support for Corbyn from his benches indicates that his own MPs agree.”

One point scored by the opposition was over May’s controversial new foreign secretary. Corbyn raised Boris Johnson’s previous comments about US President Barack Obama having an “ancestral dislike” for Britain because he is part-Kenyan, and Johnson’s use of the term “piccaninnies,” a derogatory word for black children. This was one of the few questions May evaded.

“May showed herself to be a natural during her first outing at Prime Minister’s Questions. She was largely polite, self-assured, and willing to goad the opposition benches,” Charlie Cadywould, researcher at the think tank Demos, told DW. “Rather than focusing on her key prepared talking points, which would probably have focused on today’s positive employment figures, she was sure to address each aspect of a number of multi-faceted questions, with the exception of Corbyn’s barb at the new foreign secretary, which she sensibly avoided.”

New priorities

Predictably, given the EU referendum vote that directly led to May becoming Conservative leader, she faced questions about Brexit. As home secretary, she repeatedly committed to bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands. At the last count it was 330,000. She reaffirmed that commitment in response to a question from Eurosceptic MP Philip Davies, although she said that it would “take some time.” Previously, she had committed to doing this by 2020.

“One future warning sign for May was her reluctance to commit to a Brexit timetable or to outline a clear plan for Britain’s exit from the EU, with the prime minister refusing to rule out leaving the single market to reduce immigration,” said Wildman. “The prime minister still has a willingness to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands, but it is unclear at this stage how this commitment will affect Britain’s Brexit deal.”

Rather than using the session to push a particular agenda, May appeared to focus on thoroughly answering the wide range of questions raised. “This willingness to be led by the questions means that we didn’t get any strong indication of where her key political and policy priorities lie,” said Cadywould. “The session covered everything from home ownership, job security, National Health Service funding and child poverty, where Cameron might have found a way to bring the discussion back to the employment stats at every available opportunity.”

European relations

Immediately after the session, May was due to travel to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a working dinner before meeting with French President Francois Hollande on Thursday. May has already had phone conversations with her two European counterparts, but these face-to-face meetings are seen as crucial in setting the tone of negotiations over Brexit.

While political leaders across Europe have made it clear that Britain should not expect special treatment, some analysts are optimistic that the leaders will do their best to work together. “The relationship between May and Merkel will probably be constructive, and it has to be,” said Wildman. “Britain is Germany’s greatest trading partner in Europe and Merkel will be keen to ensure that Brexit is as painless as possible for Germany’s exporters.”

In her first move regarding the EU, May had earlier abdicated the UK’s European Council presidency, due to take place in the second half of 2017, in light of Britain’s imminent departure from the EU.

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