Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn started by paying tribute to John Bercow, who was chairing his last PMQs before stepping down as Speaker.
Corbyn then said Johnson’s trade deal with Donald Trump would put more NHS money into private pockets, referencing the Channel 4 Dispatches investigation that showed the health service had been repeatedly discussed with US officials. Johnson denied the NHS was on the table and praised the way a cystic fibrosis drug had been made available.
Corbyn said the US wanted full market access to the NHS and added that while ministers were meeting US corporations, waiting times for patients needing urgent treatment were three times longer than nine years ago. But Johnson said waiting times were improving. He added that the cystic fibrosis drug was made by a US company and asked Corbyn if the NHS should not talk to companies like that.
Corbyn replied that medicines should be imported but it should be done openly, not in secret. He said patients were waiting longer for cancer treatment. Johnson retorted that Corbyn should be paying tribute to the hard work of NHS staff, not talking them down. He said the NHS was supported by a strong economy and that the NHS in Labour-run Wales routinely missed targets.
Corbyn said he was surprised Johnson could keep a straight face when his government had cut so much from the Welsh budget.
Johnson said there were 17,300 more doctors and 17,000 more nurses since 2010. He said it was time to differentiate between the politics of protest and the politics of leadership. It is about standing up for the police, the economy and wealth creators, he said. And it means getting Brexit done.
Corbyn said Johnson should have tried to show some empathy. GPs are in short supply, he said. The NHS has suffered its longest spending squeeze ever. He said this election was a chance to end NHS underfunding and stop the government selling out the health service.
Johnson replied that the choice was between economic catastrophe under Labour and two referendums, on Brexit and on Scotland. The UK would suffer “toxic torpor”. He said his government would invest in education and infrastructure.
We’ve got six more weeks of this. Sometimes PMQs is used as an opportunity for a forensic analysis of a particular issue but on Wednesday, more than ever, it was dominated by Johnson and Corbyn rehearsing their election sloganising. And neither leader seemed to have an overwhelming advantage.
Corbyn focused on the NHS in all his questions. Traditionally this has been Labour’s strongest electoral territory and Corbyn had Johnson on the defensive throughout. His arguments about NHS underfunding and increasing waiting lists were more persuasive than Johnson’s “all is fine” bravado, and Johnson was confounded when Corbyn started talking about an individual case, because Corbyn sounded more empathetic than the PM.
Corbyn also made it clear that he was going to spend much of the time claiming that a Johnson Brexit would open the door to the further marketisation and privatisation of the NHS. Whether this is wholly true is contestable, but it is a fear that registers with people, and may work well on the doorstep.
Johnson was weak on the actual details of how the NHS works. But his attack lines against Corbyn – accusing him of sweeping anti-Americanism, and wholesale hostility to the involvement of private firms in the NHS (even though many NHS services are privately provided anyway) – were much more powerful than anything Theresa May threw at Corbyn, and delivered with relish.
At the end of the exchanges Corbyn and Johnson both segued into wider themes. Corbyn’s line about the election providing a once in a lifetime opportunity for change resonated. But it was not as catchy as Johnson’s argument about Labour offering two referendums, which was just about true enough to register and stick as a key election message. (Labour is certainly promising a second Brexit referendum, which would fill some of the electorate with dread. Corbyn does not favour a second Scottish independence referendum, but he has not 100% ruled one out, and a minority Labour government dependent on Scottish National party support would probably end up agreeing to one.)
Johnson’s most lively attack lines were probably the ones he delivered against the SNP. It is widely assumed that the Tories will lose most of their seats in Scotland, and Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader in Westminster, had a good line when he said Johnson would be welcome in the country because he boosted SNP support. But even if this is true, Johnson seemed to enjoy the chance to bang on about “borders at Berwick”.
The most memorable line came from Labour’s Jess Phillips, who managed to pay tribute to Bercow while also getting in a dig at Johnson:
I have never known this place without you here and I think it will be different. It’s a delight to see your children here watching today. Because I know that while you have a responsibility to parliament you take your responsibilities as a parent incredibly seriously also. And now to the prime minister.