There was a massive elephant in the room as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn rehashed their usual script on Brexit and the economy: eight Labour MPs and three Tories have quit to join the new Independent Group of disgruntled centrists.
May and Corbyn had an unspoken pact not to mention defections
For a good fifteen minutes, May and Corbyn looked at each other squarely in the eye and said nothing at all about the eleven MPs who quit to sit in the corner as independents. They went through the usual motions on Brexit and the economy, having decided that neither had anything to gain from mentioning that their parties were falling apart as they spoke.
An obligatory mention of “broken Westminster” by Ian Blackford aside, it fell to Tory MP Maria Caulfield to be the first person to mention defection – by a Labour councillor, who switched to the Tories in Brighton Hove. May gave a half-hearted response about Labour moderates having no choice when they face bullying and racism under Corbyn.
May’s strategy was to salt Labour’s wound on antisemitism
In an early question, Tory MP Theresa Villiers quoted from a section of Joan Ryan’s resignation letter where she accused Labour of “siding with anti-semites” and called on Labour to rid itself of the scourge of racism. Ryan became the eight Labour MP to resign the whip last night.
May said she never thought she’d see the day when Labour was accused of institutional antisemitism by one of its own. Jeremy Corbyn’s reply that there is no place for antisemitism in our society or politics was met with loud jeers of “rubbish” and “root it out” from the Tory benches, while Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna shook their heads.
The Independent Group opted to sit back and let them squirm
The 11 MPs who make up the Independent Group sat bunched together in the top right corner of the opposition benches. None made an attempt to catch the speaker’s eye and ask a question, deciding instead to sit back and present themselves as being above the partisan rough-and-tumble. Chuka Umunna tweeted about 20 minutes in: “PMQs is just so awful. Everything people hate about UK politics. Abolish the thing and put something different in its place.”
… but it won’t be all rosy in the months ahead
Newly-independent MP Anna Soubry nodded along as May attacked Labour’s record in government under Blair and Brown, while the rest of the Independent Group sat stony faced. It’s easy as long as the eleven can air their gripes with their former parties without putting any of their own ideas forward. But it’s not clear what Soubry and, say, Chris Leslie will find to agree on other than their dislike of Brexit, when the time comes to actually form a party and put forward some policies.
Sajid Javid scored points with his decision on Shamima Begum
Two Tory MPs, Leo Docherty and Philip Hollobone, congratulated the home secretary’s decision to revoke Shamima Begum’s British citizenship – but no one got up to speak against it. Sajid Javid’s deeply controversial decision, which could have wide-ranging implications for naturalised British citizens, isn’t receiving the attention it deserves while the defection chaos consumes all.