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23 January 2019

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

It’s not all about Brexit.

By Patrick Maguire

1. Jeremy Corbyn should have met Theresa May…

Today’s exchanges between the Labour leader and prime minister were as circular and unilluminating as ever. Corbyn repeatedly challenged May to rule out both a no-deal scenario adopting a customs union of the sort provided for by Labour’s Brexit policy.

She was evasive on both points, and Corbyn – justifiably – sought to cast her as averse to dialogue or compromise. “Her door might be open,” he said, “but the minds inside are closed.” All true. But as an attack it has limited purchase for as long as May is able to say that he refused to meet her.

2. …and the Conservatives believe their interests are served in painting him as a Brexit wrecker

Both May and her backbenchers – regardless of their personal loyalty to the prime minister – continue to make pointed references to Labour’s desire to “stop Brexit”, as do the Conservative Party’s online campaigns. It’s an attack they clearly think is working – and one we can expect to see in any early election.

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3. Reports of Tory unity are greatly exaggerated, however

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There has been much premature talk of a great thawing among the 118 Tory MPs who voted against the Withdrawal Agreement in recent days. Could Brexiteers come in from the cold and deliver a majority for the prime minister’s deal at the second time of asking?

Not likely. Peter Bone – one of the most doctrinaire Leavers on the Conservative backbenches – asked why so many of May’s ministers were Remainers and whether they might be replaced with colleagues who truly believed in Brexit. The prime minister offered some conciliatory flannel in return and stressed her commitment to the cause.

Bone’s intervention, however, illustrates the extent to which sectarian distrust pervades the cohort May is staking everything on convincing. Even in the unlikely event the prime minister manages to wring a concession out of the EU on the Irish backstop, there is still a sizeable rump of Tories who will never be convinced.

4. The next election won’t just be about Brexit

The only interesting questions of the session came from two Labour backbenchers: Sarah Jones and John Mann.

Jones, MP for Croydon Central, challenged the government on its “stench of complacency” over private accommodation still wrapped in Grenfell-style flammable cladding, while Mann criticised failings in emergency mental health provision.

As Westminster’s bandwidth is eaten up entirely by Brexit, the public realm continues to collapse.