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13 June 2018

PMQs review: The SNP walk out as John Bercow loses control

The nationalist party stunned the Speaker with a well-crafted stunt. 

By George Eaton

The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford, unlike his predecessor Angus Robertson, has rarely set the agenda at PMQs. But at today’s session, he finally won the attention his party craves.

In protest at the mere 15 minutes allotted to debate the Brexit devolution amendment, Blackford used his second question to Theresa May to demand an emergency debate and a vote on a private sitting. A stunned John Bercow evidently did not know how to respond. After seemingly granting Blackford permission to stage a vote immediately, he eventually retreated and insisted that it be held after PMQs.

The Speaker then demanded that Blackford resume his seat – an order that was ignored. After scrambling for the relevant procedure, Bercow ordered him to leave the chamber – for the reminder of the day. Blackford, who had anticipated such a response, was joined by the rest of his party – perfect political symbolism for the nationalists. In his nine years as Speaker, Bercow had never appeared less in control of parliamentary events.

Earlier at PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn, who once shied away from Brexit, led on the subject for the fourth consecutive week: a symptom of Theresa May’s weakness. Corbyn’s opening question was typically well-crafted: “When the Prime Minister met Donald Trump last week, did she do as the Foreign Secretary suggested and ask him to take over the Brexit negotiations?” As May remained stern-faced, Boris Johnson could not suppress a chuckle.

The Labour leader made much of the gift provided by the Foreign Secretary (the leaked recording of his dinner address to a Tory activist group). Johnson, he recalled, had branded the Treasury the “heart of Remain” (Philip Hammond was sat next to the Foreign Secretary) and had warned of “a meltdown” in the Brexit negotiations. The promised “backstop” for the Irish border, Corbyn quipped, appeared more of a “backslide”.

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As before, May derided the Labour leader for refusing to rule out a second Brexit referendum but could not disguise her indecision (the Brexit white paper, she insisted, would finally be published next month). But the Prime Minister survived to deliver a parting shot. In reference to this Saturday’s ill-fated Labour Live festival, she quipped that the headliners were “the shadow chancellor and the Magic Numbers”. Unfortunately for May, “magic” is also what she will need to deliver the Brexiteers’ demands.