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6 February 2019

Four things we learnt from PMQS

David Lidington doesn’t buy what Theresa May is selling, and neither do MPs.

By Stephen Bush

David Lidington really isn’t buying what Theresa May is selling

It’s an open secret that David Lidington, Theresa May’s de facto deputy, is privately supportive of a softer form of Brexit than that advocated by the Prime Minister herself. As an experienced former Europe minister, he also has a keen sense of is and isn’t possible when negotiating with the European Union.

Emily Thornberry’s objective at PMQs was to exploit that. All of her questions effectively had the same theme: “Look, David, you don’t agree with this either, do you?”

She wasn’t the only one. Conservative MPs on both sides of the Remain/Leave divide also had questions in that vein – Ken Clarke did so sympathetically, Mark Francois and Andrew Bridgen unsympathetically – all with the objective of exposing the division between Lidington and his boss.

Lidington dealt with that by saying nothing at all, remaining rigidly glued to his notes and speaking hesitantly. He got through the session without putting his foot in his mouth, but what was revealing is what he couldn’t bring himself to say that May’s negotiation will be a success, or that the Malthouse Compromise (the agreement parliamentary Conservative party has reached to stop arguing with one another but instead argue with reality) isn’t a nonsense.  

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Brexiteer MPs don’t trust the government an inch

The session began with a hostile question from Andrew Bridgen, the Conservative backbencher for North West Leicestershire, and ended with another from Mark Francois, the Conservative backbencher for Rayleigh and Wickford. Bridgen wanted to know if the government would commit to taking the UK out of the European Union on schedule on 29 March 2019, while Francois wanted to know what about the Brady amendment – which called for the backstop to be scrapped entirely – the government didn’t understand when it backed it.

It’s a reminder of the enduring loss of trust and confidence Brexiteer ultrans have in a word that ministers say.

Ian Blackford isn’t in the business of asking questions

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s leader at Westminster, has two questions by right every week by dint of the SNP’s status as the third party.

There are two approaches for the third party: to use the first question to set a trap and the second to spring it, or to advance a specific issue, or to deliver a setpiece speech to be clipped for social media.

Blackford favoured the latter as he usually does, even when faced with the prospect of discomforting Lidington on the European issue.

The Conservatives can’t work out what to do with Jeremy Corbyn’s Euroscepticism

Conservative politicians – whether that is Lidington today, random ministers on TV or radio, or Theresa May in this slot in a normal week – have a preferred gear as far as Labour and Brexit go: to say that the party wants to block Brexit. Their fallback option is to attack the party being vague.

There should, at least in theory, be some political advantage to be made from highlighting the gap between Corbyn’s views of the EU and that of most of his shadow ministers, but the Tory party has yet to find an attack it seems comfortable carrying off.

This week, Corbyn’s Euroscepticism was back in the news after The Red Roar obtained footage of a 2009 speech in which the Labour leader excoriated the Lisbon Treaty, against which he voted in the House of Commons.

But it never quite worked for Lidington to bring up Corbyn’s Euroscepticism or his dubiousness over the backstop – and strikingly the most effective deployment of the Labour leader’s view was when Andrew Bridgen used it to have pop at his own side.