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12 October 2016

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn starts to pin Theresa May down on Brexit

The Labour leader's warning of a "shambolic Tory Brexit" showed he has identified his target. 

By George Eaton

What does Brexit mean? In past weeks, Labour MPs have chided the eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn for rarely raising this question. But at today’s PMQs, he delivered some of the lines they have craved.  

After the referendum, Corbyn warned, “the trade deficit is widening, growth forecasts being downgraded, the value of the pound down 16 per cent … Is the PM really willing to risk a shambolic Tory Brexit just to appease the people behind her?” The reference to a “shambolic Tory Brexit” was cannier than “hard Brexit” (which merely makes Theresa May sound tough).

Corbyn went on to quote Ken Clarke’s lament that “the pound keeps zooming south” because “absolutely nobody has the faintest idea what exactly we’re going to put in place” (the Labour leader now prefers to cite Tory rebels to members of the public).

May replied that she was “optimistic” (which won’t assure many) and sought to frame Labour as undemocratic. “The shadow foreign secretary is shouting from a sedentary position, the shadow foreign secretary wants a second vote. I have to say to her, I would have thought Labour MPs would have learnt this lesson. You can ask the question again, you still get the answer you don’t want!”

The line played well in the Commons. But since Labour is not advocating a second referendum (as Thornberry swiftly tweeted) it is not one she can regularly deploy. But Corbyn’s attack was marred by his demand for May to promise single market “access”. Few doubt that the UK will have that. It is membership of the zone which May has all but ruled out (and which Labour has similarly refused to endorse). Today, she spoke of “operating within and trading with the European market”, a formulation that shed little light.

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The referendum was recent enough for May to insist that she will simply deliver the people’s will. But the grimmer the economic news becomes, the harder it will be for her to dismiss those less “optimistic” than her. Today, Corbyn showed that he has identified his target.