Theresa May appeared to drop a deadline on her target of getting net migration down to the tens of thousands by the time of the next election in 2020, at the end of her prime minister’s questions debut, in which she mocked Jeremy Cobyn over the challenge to his leadership of Labour.
At the end PMQs, May told MPs “it will take some time” to bring net migration to Britain, which stands at 333,000 on the latest figures, down below 100,000. Previously the target had been to cut it to that level by 2020.
Although May has talked for some weeks about reducing net migration to “sustainable levels”, that was in the context of an ambition to be achieved by the time of the next general election in 2020.
A Conservative rightwing backbencher, Philip Davies, called on her during PMQs to keep her promise to those who voted leave in the referendum to get immigration down to the tens of thousands.
May replied: “The vote that was taken in this country on 23 June sent a clear message that people want control of free movement from the European Union.
“I also remain firm in my belief that we want to get net migration down to sustainable levels and the government believes that is tens of thousands but it will take some time to get there. But of course we now have an added aspect of controls we can bring in on people from the European Union,.”
May made this clear in July last year after the general election, when she told the Commons home affairs select committee: “We have the target of the tens of thousands. It’s the same target. The aim is to meet it by the end of the five-year parliament.”
Afterwards, however, May’s spokeswoman reaffirmed her commitment to the Conservatives’ migration target. “The prime minister is absolutely clear that she’s committed to getting immigration down to a sustainable level; in our view that means tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands.”
She added: “The manifesto stands.”
In a performance that walked a fine line between caustic and openly crowing, May exploited divisions within Labour over Trident to thank the 140 Labour MPs “who put the national interest first” by defying Corbyn and voting on Monday to renew the nuclear weapons system.
Amid raucous shouts and cheers from Conservative MPs, May responded to Corbyn’s welcome to her new role by contrasting her status as the Tories’ second female prime minister with Labour’s lack of any woman leader. She added, in sarcastic reference to Corbyn’s poor poll ratings: “I look forward to the exchanges he and I will have – I hope we will be having the exchanges over this dispatch box for many years to come.”
Asked by Corbyn about issues including housing, racial injustice and economic insecurity, May also repeatedly referred to her first words outside Downing Street as prime minister, in which she talked about lessening economic and social divides.
“It is correct that if you are black you will be treated more harshly in the criminal justice system,” she said in response to one question from Corbyn, while ignoring another section of it that quizzed her about racially insensitive comments by her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.
Answering another question about low levels of housebuilding, May said she would head “a government who will be governing for everybody in this country”.
May’s most concerted – and clearly pre-scripted – mockery of Corbyn came in response to a question about insecure employment. The prime minister answered with a reference to bad bosses.
“I suspect there are many members on the opposition benches who might be familiar with an unscrupulous boss,” she said, as the cheers and shouts from her MPs rose in volume.
“A boss who doesn’t listen to his workers. A boss who requires some of his workers to double their workload. Maybe even a boss who exploits the rules to further his own career. Remind him of anybody?”
Corbyn did not rise to the insult, saying, with obvious anger: “We are sent here to represent people. And there are many people in this country struggling with insecure jobs, with low wages.”
He continued: “I know this is very funny for all Conservative members, but I don’t suppose that too many Conservative MPs have to go to a food bank in order to supplement their family table every week. I think we should reflect on these things.”