It took him a while, but Jeremy Corbyn is discovering the political benefits of Brexit. At today’s PMQs, he lambasted Theresa May over her alleged lack of a plan, albeit through a bizarre segue. The Labour leader began by asking about the fate of the Chagos Islanders but, to the incredulity of MPs, his question morphed into one on Brexit. Was Boris Johnson right, he asked, to suggest to the UK would leave the customs union?
In resoonse, May was as inscrutable as ever, merely stating that “we are preparing carefully for the formal negotiations”. But when Corbyn demanded that she put her plan before parliament (as opposed to allowing Johnson to reveal it to Czech newspapers), she gave more away. Her plan, she declared, was “to control the movement of people from Europe” (an option Angela Merkel has again ruled out) and to “negotiate free trade agreements with the rest of world” (which implies leaving the customs union). Pressed later by the SNP’s Angus Robertson, May insisted that customs union withdrawal was not “a binary decision”.
It is such ambiguities that lead MPs to demand the government reveal its strategy to them. But May warned: “If we did that, it would be the best possible way that we got the worst result for this country. That’s why we won’t do it.” But it is a mark of her discomfort that she was happier attacking Corbyn (“We are getting on with the job, he’s not up to the job”) than she was defending her stance.
Having long ago abandoned his “people’s questions”, the Labour leader now relishes in parliamentary knockabout. “The Foreign Secretary is whispering advice, can we all hear it?” he demanded. The days when the Labour leader failed to mention Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation (insisting that he was not his place to do so) are now a distant memory. For Corbyn, landing blows over Brexit is no longer merely a duty but a pleasure. “The government is making a shambles … and nobody understands what the strategy is,” he concluded.
Of note today was that neither May nor Corbyn, perhaps unsurprisingly, welcomed the election of Donald Trump. By contrast, in November 2008, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron hailed Barack Obama’s victory. Trump was eventually mentioned in an appropriately surreal context. Tory MP Richard Bacon asked May for a message of reassurance for “fat, middle-aged, white man” who feel “left behind”. With the innuendo of which she is often fond, May replied: “Perhaps he would like to come up and see me sometime.”