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8 May 2019

Four things we learned from this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions

May and Corbyn are unlikely to do a deal. But the smaller parties wish they would.

By Patrick Maguire

The politics of a cross-party Brexit deal aren’t getting any easier…

Beyond a lame gag inspired by Liverpool’s sensational win over Barcelona last night, Brexit did not feature in today’s ding-dong between Theresa May – who ill-advisedly compared herself to Jurgen Klopp – and Jeremy Corbyn. 

Instead, the Labour leader chose to press the prime minister on the government’s handling of the NHS – and their dialogue unfolded in wearyingly familiar fashion (“You’ve cut the NHS!” “It’s got more money that ever!” “It’s not enough!” “Wales!”).

On the basis of that exchange alone, it would be difficult if not impossible to guess that government and opposition are (at least notionally) engaged in talks on a Brexit compromise. 

That Corbyn chose not to lead on Brexit – and that May, unless forced, didn’t lean into the topic either – reflects just how fraught the politics of a deal are for each leader. 

Granted, the pretence of cross-party talks does preclude a partisan scrap over the issue. But the fact that the internal pain of even raising the subject is too great for Corbyn and May to bear underlines the impossibility of striking a deal that both parties can wear – at least publicly.

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…and Theresa May hasn’t moved on a second referendum

A persistent complaint from Labour’s delegation to talks with the government has been that, despite all the conciliatory noises and claims of a willingness to compromise from ministers, there has been little in the way of genuine movement at all. 

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Even if Downing Street manages to concoct a customs fudge that the Labour leadership can swallow, it won’t be enough for the substantial minority of the PLP for whom a second referendum is a dealbreaker. 

On that, the chances of the prime minister budging are nil, which she happily admitted not once but twice today. Her beezy dismissals of a new poll will do nothing for the brittle patience of the aforementioned group of Labour MPs – and in turn makes a positive resolution to this round of talks hard to foresee.

A deal would be good news for Remain parties

The SNP’s Ian Blackford used his two questions to press the prime minister on the progress of cross-party negotiations – and blasted the prospect of a “Labour-Tory Brexit stitch-up”. 

Change UK’s Joan Ryan, meanwhile, pursued a similar gambit. Accusing the government and opposition of “only caring about a Brexit that suits them”, she called for – you guessed it – a second referendum. 

Should Labour agree a deal with the government – especially one that does not include a new vote – then expect to hear much more of these attack lines. Both the opposition and its smaller rivals suspect disaffected Remainers could move in substantial numbers should Corbyn be perceived as facilitating Brexit.

Only the usual suspects want May to quit immediately

Andrea Jenkyns, the Conservative hardliner who resigned from the government to oppose its Brexit policy before it even had one, was the only MP to raise last week’s local election results. 

The abysmal Tory showing, Jenkyns said, was evidence that May had lost the country’s trust. Would she resign? The answer, unsurprisingly, was no. 

Her intervention illustrates the two fundamental truths of the Tory leadership debate. The first is that discontent with May’s leadership runs deep on the Conservative backbenchers. With the 1922 Committee’s executive meeting to consider rule changes that would make the prime minister’s defenestration easier this afternoon, that is significant. 

But just as significant as that discontent is the fact that, for the most part, it is still contained to the usual suspects – that is, those MPs who have already quit the government or hate its Brexit policy anyway. 

That Jenkyns was the only torch-bearer for the Tory malcontents after the week the prime minister has had suggests the dynamic within the Conservative party has not changed: though most MPs want her to go sometime soon, only a minority want it to happen immediately.