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27 February 2019

Brexit won’t be stopped, and three other things we learnt at PMQs

The interest came from the backbenchers at PMQs. 

By Stephen Bush

There is no majority in the House of Commons for a second vote. Still

Probably the most significant intervention in PMQs today came from a backbencher: the Conservative MP George Freeman. He has frequently rebelled against the Tory whip to make Brexit softer and to avoid a no deal Brexit, and is one of just 27 current Conservative MPs to do so.

To overcome the number of diehard Labour opponents of a second referendum you would need essentially every Conservative rebel plus a few more to vote the other way.

Bluntly, that so many of the most committed Conservative rebels – Freeman is one, Nicky Morgan a second, Nick Boles a third – are set against another referendum is one reason why there is no realistic prospect of this House of Commons voting for another referendum, regardless of Labour’s position on the issue, unless some as yet unknown event radically shifts politics.

Backing a second vote has had and will continue to have implications for Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to PMQs

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The least successful approach at PMQs, regardless of who is occupying the two roles, is to go on a new set of economic forecasts. Unless an economic catastrophe has just happened, in which case the leader of the opposition is essentially just there to collect their 6-0 win and move on, there will always be enough statistics that the Prime Minister of the day can brandish to ensure the whole thing ends in a staid and inconclusive exchange of numbers.

But one reason why Jeremy Corbyn went on that issue – as well as the perennial running sore of the Universal Credit programme – is that it would have been difficult for him to go on Brexit.

Anyone who watches PMQs regularly knows that Theresa May, rightly or wrongly, believes that it is in her interest to paint Labour as blocking Brexit and that Corbyn has taken great pains to avoid that position.

Now that Labour is in a position where May can easily occupy her preferred position of painting Labour as a roadblock, it is harder for Corbyn to go on Brexit in parliamentary exchanges, and that will continue to be the case.

A row is looming over the future of higher education funding

Justine Greening had an interesting question about the looming report into higher education funding. There is an influential caucus in Downing Street that believes Labour’s tuition fee policy was a key part of what went wrong in 2017 and that they need to offer something on this, most likely a cut to £6,000 of fees.

One reason why Greening was sacked and Jo Johnson eased out as junior minister from the Department for Education is both are broadly supportive of the current policy, though Greening argued in private for more money for maintenance grants (an argument she reiterated in the House today).

It’s a reminder that there will still be Conservative splits aplenty if Brexit is resolved.

Brexit is crowding out everything, including climate change

In a neat bit of timing for the Green Party, their sole MP Caroline Lucas was granted a question at PMQs. It comes in an unseasonably hot February and as a variety of indicators show that climate change is no longer a looming threat but a present-day reality.

But Lucas instead went on the topic of Brexit and no deal preparation. It was a good routine about no deal but it is a striking illustration of how even the United Kingdom’s ecologically focussed party cannot escape the Brexit vortex.