Three things we learnt from PMQs today

The government is treading carefully as the prime minister faces her last serious backbench challenge for a while. 


Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

David Lidington and Emily Thornberry stood in for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions today. Both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition are in Belfast for the funeral of Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee; a group calling itself the new IRA has taken responsibility for her murder.

It was a deeply sombre session which ended with the DUP’s Nigel Dodds condemning the group’s “utterly repulsive statement” and saying that “an attack on any one of us is an attack on us all”. Here’s what we learned.

The cross-party Brexit talks are still deadlocked…

Thornberry said McKee’s murder proved that politicians must solve the Northern Irish border question rather than giving “evil terrorists the divisions that they crave”.

On Brexit, she repeated what Labour has been saying for weeks, calling on the government to “finally get serious” about the cross-party talks and accept the need for a customs union to guarantee a soft border. It demonstrates how little progress there has been despite hours of negotiations between the two parties.

… while Theresa May is in the danger zone

The government is certainly not prepared to soften its Brexit offering and concede a major victory to Labour, particularly not during a week when May’s when premiership faces what might be its last serious challenge for a while.

The executive of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers will decide today whether to change its rules and allow a second no confidence vote in the prime minister after six months rather than a year. She survived the last vote in December with a majority of 83. 

The Tories are said to be divided over whether to change the rules, and May won’t be risking anything that could tip the balance against her. Lidington therefore dodged the customs union question and emphasised that the government was spending £20m on looking at “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, seeking to pacify Tory hardliners.

He also distanced the backstop issue from McKee’s murder, saying that didn’t think her killers were motivated “by thoughts about the border”. He went on to field a couple of Tory backbench questions seeking reassurances on Brexit, including from Tom Pursglove and David Treddinick.

Climate change is high up in the political consciousness

Standing in for Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s Kirsty Blackman attacked the government’s record on climate change.

She was backed up by two further questions, one from Conservative MP Rebecca Pow and one from Labour’s Bill Esterton. Pow called on the government to commit to achieving net zero emissions before 2050, while Esterson accused it of being “complacent” by claiming it was on target to meet its goals.

Lidington responded that people were underestimating the government’s action on climate change, and defended its record compared with other major economies. He said the UK had committed to spending £10bn on renewables annually by 2021, and that it had built the world’s largest offshore windfarm.

It just goes to show just how the disruptive Extinction Rebellion protests over the bank holiday weekend, and Greta Thunberg’s address to MPs yesterday, have succeeded in pushing climate change to the top of the political agenda.

Eleni Courea writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2018.