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12 December 2018

Five things we learnt from this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions

On this evidence, Theresa May will survive in office for now.

By Stephen Bush

1) Theresa May is probably going to win the confidence vote

It is, of course, true, that the joy of a secret ballot is that Conservative MPs can tweet or say that they are going to support Theresa May in the confidence vote and then vote against her. But it is nonetheless striking that of the eight backbench Conservative questions, all eight were drawn from the “Would the Prime Minister agree with me that puppies, chocolate and rainbows are ever so lovely, and occur more frequently under a Conservative government?” bucket. (The closest to a tricky question was Nigel Mills asking about reassurance for the three million European citizens living in the United Kingdom in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and even that was softball.)

The cheer that Ken Clarke got from his own side for criticising colleagues for calling a parliamentary vote felt and sounded pretty spontaneous, as opposed to the very grudging cheers that the Prime Minister has attracted in recent weeks.

On this evidence, the Conservative Party isn’t yet ready to dump its leader.

2) Jeremy Corbyn has found a line of attack on Brexit that he thinks works

Jeremy Corbyn has historically tended to avoid going on about Brexit at Prime Ministers’ Questions for the simple reason that he and his inner circle don’t believe there is any value in doing so: Labour is divided on the matter and they want to fight the next election on domestic policy, not Brexit. Whatever the Labour leader says on Brexit is either vague or irritates someone in the Labour Party, so for the most part the leader’s office has preferred to take a “silence is golden” position on the issue.

But in recent weeks, he’s felt more able to go on the issue at PMQs because the Labour Party, from Kate Hoey through to Chuka Umunna, is united on one thing: they don’t like Theresa May’s Brexit deal. (Just don’t ask them what they’d do instead.)  

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3) But so has Theresa May

Equally though, Theresa May now has a counter-argument that she feels comfortable with and that there is a strategic value in responding with: that Labour wants to block Brexit.

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4) Rightly or wrongly, both the Conservatives and Labour think that Labour has something to lose by becoming the party of “no Brexit”

The thing about the “Labour wants to block Brexit” line is it just isn’t true. There are many people with the ear of the Labour leader who actively want to facilitate Brexit and although there are some influential figures in the inner circle who were genuinely unhappy the morning after the United Kingdom voted to leave, they are a minority. If the next Labour Party manifesto commits Jeremy Corbyn to blocking or reversing Brexit it will be because he has failed to manage the politics of it internally.

As it stands there isn’t even necessarily a guaranteed majority among Labour MPs to block Brexit although a majority would like a softer Brexit than the one on offer from Jeremy Corbyn at the moment.

And it’s not as if May is short of dividing lines that she could draw on Brexit other than “you want to block Brexit”. The Conservatives could go with “you’re too weak to negotiate Brexit”, exploiting the fact they still have a large lead as far as the question of who the best prime minister is, strong leadership, able to make tough decisions and all those similar metrics across every poll.   

The Labour leadership has a pro-Brexit position for two reasons: because some of them are Brexiteers, and essentially all of them fear that they have something to lose by opposing Brexit. There’s a tendency among organised Remainers to dismiss the latter as solely a device to support the former. But it’s worth acknowledging that the belief that Labour would pay an electoral price if it is seen as an anti-Brexit party isn’t merely confined to the leadership of the opposition but is shared by the government as well.

5) Vince Cable is firmly in his comfort zone

Now that the Liberal Democrats are no longer the third party by number of seats in the Commons, they are not guaranteed questions at PMQs every week and just have one every six weeks.

So it’s always worth noting what they choose to go on: this week Cable went for a broadside at Jeremy Corbyn’s expense, criticising Labour for not bringing forward a motion of confidence in the government before Conservative MPs had already brought a motion of confidence in Theresa May forward.

Fundamentally, everyone following the row who is not already in the tank for one side or another knows full well that there is no prospect of a motion of confidence in the government being won and that the actual argument is about Brexit, and the whole row is so low-interest that it is not going to gain anyone anything.

It’s a particular waste of Cable’s time – who to reiterate gets just one shot at this every six weeks – and feels like a good example of the problem of his leadership, which is that he all too frequently tries to recreate the Liberal Democrats’ pre-2010 comfort zone: that of anguished critics occupying a position slightly to the left of the Labour party.

But the problem is that the space that they used to do that from doesn’t really exist anymore and might not ever open up for them again. (Not least because if it does, the natural beneficiary is surely the Green Party.)

The space they could occupy at least in theory is between the big two, not as a critical annexe to the Labour Party. But Cable rarely makes a confident pitch for that space, as he demonstrated again today.