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  1. Politics
22 October 2018updated 07 Jun 2021 3:16pm

What we learned from Theresa May’s final PMQs

By Patrick Maguire

The Tories haven’t lost the capacity for unity

One of the most striking – but perhaps unsurprising – features of the past 24 hours has been the speed with which a Conservative Party riven by profound divisions on Brexit, the merits of a Boris Johnson premiership and much else has managed to put on a united front ahead of the transition to a new regime. 

Johnson was cheered to the rafters by a packed 1922 Committee meeting last night – a courtesy that Conservative MPs have not extended to Theresa May for a long time – and his new parliamentary party extended a similar courtesy to the outgoing prime minister for her final turn at the despatch box. 

A rare full house followed weeks of fruitless begging for attendance from Downing Street. In recent weeks fewer than 100 Tory MPs have shown up to support their leader. That they heeded the call not to humiliate her in her final week, as Jacob Rees-Mogg very deliberately did not with a particularly gloopy tribute, underlines the fact that their reserves of goodwill are slowly replenishing.

Theresa May’s favourite attack line might yet save Boris Johnson 

Reprising a familiar refrain for the last time, May repeatedly chided Jeremy Corbyn for voting against her withdrawal agreement three times, and later directed the same criticism at Yvette Cooper. 

While the Labour leadership might have just about moved on from that particular debate, the attack has lost none of its political potency for the 30 or so of their MPs whose preference was always for a negotiated exit rather than a continuity remain position. 

This group is acutely aware of the electoral damage that their being seen to block Brexit could inflict upon them, and it is the fear of attacks like May’s sticking that could drive them to vote for any accord Johnson brings back without any hesitation. 

The Tory resistance to no-deal isn’t going anywhere 

Keith Simpson, a hitherto anonymous Tory backbencher who rebelled for the first time ever in attempt to block a no-deal Brexit last week, posed the most hostile Conservative question of the session: what advice would May give to her successor?

It was clearly intended as a coded warning to Johnson over Brexit. The new Prime Minister finds himself in much the same position as Theresa May did after the 2017 election: with the majority of her parliamentary party behind her, but ultimately at the mercy of a very small number of backbenchers.

It is as easy to dismiss Simpson as it was easy to dismiss Nadine Dorries and Andrew Bridgen. But a government with no majority and a divisive Brexit policy can not afford to take that attitude. 

Labour’s Corbynsceptics need better PR 

Two comments – one from the despatch box, and one from the backbenches – appeared to bruise Corbyn, and will inevitably be written up as such. 

The first came from May, who, after what appeared to be a touching gesture of rapprochement towards the leader of the opposition, suggested he follow her lead and stand down. 

The second came from Ian Austin, the former Labour MP who quit the party over anti-Semitism in February. He not only associated himself with May’s remarks, but stressed that many of his former colleagues – among whom he still sits – agreed with him. 

That assertion isn’t necessarily untrue, but the fact of its airing by such a vociferous critic of the leadership – who was unreconciled and unreconcilable to Corbyn’s leadership from the moment of his election – will leave Labour MPs who believe the membership might finally be for turning intensely frustrated. 

The last thing the Labour leader’s opponents within the PLP need is for their cause to be associated with May and Austin, who have essentially written two new lines for Corbyn’s pitch to the grassroots.

It’s worth recalling one of the more memorable lines from David Cameron’s final PMQs, when he bellowed at Corbyn, then in the grip of a failed coup: “FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE MAN, GO!” Three years later, he is still here. The same gambit isn’t any more likely to work this time. 

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