Despite all the Tories did to prevent it, the knives were out for Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions today (March 15).

Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, released a statement that he was withdrawing his Budget policy that would have increased National Insurance contributions by the self-employed, late in the morning – possibly in an attempt to wrong-foot Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and deprive him of the chance to work out decent questions to put to Theresa May.

As it turned out, though, Mr Corbyn did not have the first opportunity to stick a verbal knife into the prostrate prime minister – her own fellow Tory, Huw Merriman, did it instead. Welcoming the policy reversal (that, as he said abided by the letter and the spirit of the Tory manifesto), he asked if Mrs May agrees that we must have a fair and sustainable tax system.

Her response was this: “We made a commitment not to raise tax, and we put our commitment into the tax lock. The measures that we put forward in the Budget last week were consistent with those locks.”

The rest of her response was drowned out by the derision that seemed to be coming from both sides of the house.

After an intervention by Speaker John Bercow, she was able to say this:

The trend towards greater self-employment does create a structural issue in the tax base on which we will have to act. We want to ensure that we maintain, as they have said, fairness in the tax system. We will await the report from Matthew Taylor on the future of employment; consider the Government’s overall approach to employment status and rights to tax and entitlements; and bring forward further proposals, but we will not bring forward increases to national insurance contributions later in this Parliament.

The response was self-defeating on several levels:

The trend towards greater self-employment is something towards which the Conservatives have nudged working people with their policies.

More self-employed people are staying in work for longer, because Tory economics have forced them to do so due to diminishing profits.

More people have become self-employed because company employment opportunities have not been available to them.

More people have become self-employed because companies have made it a condition of their employment, in order to avoid paying sick pay, holiday pay, and other benefits to them.

And there has been an issue about people claiming to be self-employed in order to get tax credits – although This Writer cannot, for the moment, recall how that was resolved.

These are all conditions created by the Conservatives (along with the Liberal Democrats, during the 2010-15 Parliament).

It is therefore unfair of Mrs May to threaten the self-employed with higher tax demands when their employment status has been predicated by diminishing pay.

Mr Corbyn led by suggesting that the government was “in a bit of chaos here” – which is broadly correct. For the last week, all we’ve been hearing is that the Tories were splitting over whether the NI hike was a good move or a manifesto betrayal; Mr Hammond’s admission that it went against a commitment in the Tory manifesto came after Mrs May had defended the rise, for example.

So she had no choice but to offer a scripted line: “When it comes to lectures on chaos he would be the first person I turned to.”

Mr Corbyn pressed further:

This measure, if carried through, will create a black hole in the budget. What is she going to do to fill that black hole?

Nothing, if her answer was any guide. Again, only a scripted non-answer: “If the right hon. Gentleman is so concerned about balancing the books, why is it Labour party policy to borrow half a trillion pounds and bankrupt Britain?”

Mr Corbyn batted that one aside with the ease of one who has become well-practised at dealing with this particular claim:

Given that this Government propose to borrow more between now and 2020 than the entire borrowing of all Labour Governments put together, we do not need lectures from them on that.

He went on to express the hope that the Chancellor, in his statement later in the day, would address the injustice faced by people who are forced into bogus self-employment by unscrupulous companies, many of which force their workers to become self-employed and thereby avoid employer’s national insurance contributions. He said:

It is a grossly unfair system where those in self-employment pay some national insurance, but employers do not, and benefit from it. That is a gross injustice that must be addressed.

Not today, according to Mrs May. She merely referred to the review of the employment market and employment rights and status that she has commissioned Matthew Taylor of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) to carry out – but on which he will not report until… when? I don’t know.

So Mr Corbyn drew the obvious conclusions:

We have a Government U-turn, no apology, and a Budget that falls most heavily on those with the least broad shoulders, with cuts to schools, cuts to social care and cuts to support for people with disabilities. That is the agenda of the right hon. Lady’s Government, and everybody knows it.

Mrs May chose not to answer the criticism but to quibble over whether he had asked her a question.

Of course, the usual suspects were quick to deliver their verdicts. On the BBC’s Daily Politics, Laura Kuenssberg was quick to try to spin it into a victory for Mrs May, saying she threw her head back and laughed – presumably with relief and mockery at Mr Corbyn after he had finished his questions.

I don’t have an image of that. I have this:

Meanwhile, less crazed commentators took a more rounded view:

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