It was the clash of the understudies at today’s PMQs, due to the Prime Minister being busy with the King of Spain’s state visit. Standing in for Theresa May was Damian Green, the new First Secretary of State and a close ally of the PM – facing shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, who took Jeremy Corbyn’s place.
But only the latter enjoyed her time in the spotlight. She doggedly held the government to account on the Prime Minister’s irresponsible suggestion that “no deal” in the Brexit negotiations would be better than a bad deal. And despite Green’s squirming (he randomly mentioned unemployment figures at one point, as a last-ditch attempt at distraction), she did not stray from her line of questioning – bringing in the cabinet’s public divisions on the subject, to boot.
“What will happen to the Irish land border if no deal is reached?” was her opening line, followed by a string of equally tough questions about what no deal would look like in practice, if there’s a contingency plan for it, whether it would mean no transitional arrangement – and: “Is it still the government’s clear policy that no deal is an option?”
This last question is crucial, as the Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Brexit Secretary all have different lines on the subject – a trap May set for herself by conjuring up the prospect of accepting “no deal” in the first place.
And Thornberry got her answer: Green, looking rather ashen-faced, said it was “conceivable” that walking away without an agreement would be better for Britain than a “punishment deal”. The disastrous financial implications of this will worry pro-Europeans and Brexiteers alike.
This is a key win for Labour. Usually PMQs is a show of evasion and unanswered questions – but Thornberry extracted a clear answer on the government’s Brexit stance. It’s not that the PM and her ministers are being vague about negotiations, as they are often accused of; it’s that they’re being terrifyingly specific about what they are willing to sacrifice for the sake of politics.
Other Tory weaknesses were exposed by Thornberry. She played on May’s weak position by suggesting other frontbenchers might want to “audition” for the role at PMQs, and quoted clashing lines on Brexit from various government figures – suggesting that ministers are “just making it up as they go along”.
Her questions also highlighted how desperate the Prime Minister’s call for collaboration with other parties was this week.
“You’re supposed to be building political consensus, man!” she cried, the moment Green contradicted her. Even the First Secretary himself began mocking the idea. “Let me try even harder to establish consensus with the honourable lady,” he said, through gritted teeth.
But the only consensus here was that Thornberry the understudy aced her starring role. Exit stage left.