Labour have strength in depth
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, was benched for this occasion, for the obvious reason that if you are on the record having disagreed with the party’s official policy on Brexit, doing Prime Ministers’ Questions is like standing up, handing your opponent a big stick and saying, “Hey, please hit me any time you want!”. So Rebecca Long-Bailey, on whom the medium term hopes of Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle rest, was up to bat instead.
That also meant that the approach which Thornberry deploys very effectively – to pick a topic on which the Conservative party is split, or on which David Lidington, Theresa May’s regular stand-in, disagrees with his boss – was off the table as well, because he could, of course, have responded by pointing out, well, the person who usually fills this role had been benched having publicly disagreed over Brexit.
Long-Bailey put in a pretty solid performance considering the circumstances and underlined her credentials for taking up the role on a permanent basis. She even dealt well with the inevitable crack about Thornberry’s absence.
Emily Thornberry is a canny operator
David Lidington’s best gag was an extended riff on the fact that Emily Thornberry had been benched for overshadowing Jeremy Corbyn with her performances against him – which while of course untrue was a good way of boxing in Long-Bailey, as there is no good response that can be given. You just can’t rebut it without creating more problems. Long-Bailey dealt with it the only way possible: by laughing it off and moving on.
But the gag was only possible because Thornberry refused to play ball with her benching – the leadership put it about that she was absent because she was at the D-Day commemorations in Portsmouth, something which Team Thornberry then denied. The Islington South MP underlined the point by taking a seat on the Labour frontbench.
That makes it harder for the leadership to keep this switch permanent without embarrassment, which means that it will likely continue to be Thornberry, not Long-Bailey, who receives the benefit of these on and off sessions where she socks it to the Tories and gets a nice set of clips for Facebook should either the leadership or the deputy leadership fall vacant.
The Conservatives will miss David Lidington
This is almost certainly David Lidington’s last stint at Prime Ministers’ Questions: Theresa May is soon to be ushered into forced retirement, and her de facto deputy is odds-on to follow her. It’s through no fault of his own: it’s just that the next Prime Minister will want to freshen up their team and it makes sense to start with the over-60s.
May will receive something resembling a warm send-off at her last PMQs but Lidington, of course, did not today.
The task of Prime Ministerial stand-in is a horrible one. Essentially, opposition MPs are playing on easy mode, because they just pick any area where the governing party is split, or on the ropes, but where the stand-in, unable to make policy or announcements, has no way of moving the conversation on – and just whack that ball at them six times. Lidington mostly lost these bouts, but he did a better job than Damian Green, his predecessor – and probably a better job than those who come after him, too.
The SNP’s approach to its two questions shows how PMQs have changed
The third party slot at PMQs is at once the easiest and the hardest slot. It’s the easiest because the one-two punch it sets up is simplicity itself: question one you ask something like, “Does the right honourable member agree with me that kittens are good, and never to be punched?” and then, when they say yes, you ask them why they won’t condemn a senior member of the government for punching kittens. It is the hardest because you don’t know what the leader of the opposition will do, so you need multiple one-two punches.
Angus Robertson, the SNP’s previous parliamentary leader, was a master at these set-ups, but his replacement, Ian Blackford, generally asks two essentially unrelated questions. Kirsty Blackman, standing in for Blackford, also went for two essentially unrelated questions.
What Blackford and Blackman’s questions have in common is that they will clip well for social media: now considered by most parties a more valuable asset than actually embarrassing the government in the chamber or exposing it on policy.