How many members of parliament does the DUP have? Most people would say 10, but anyone who listened to Prime Minister’s Questions today could be forgiven for thinking they have an eleventh: the right honourable member for Islington North.
As ever, Jeremy Corbyn led on Brexit – after the week the Prime Minister has had, who wouldn’t? – and used the sort of attack lines that Theresa May more often hears from the Brexiteers in and around her own government.
Before the leader of the opposition rose to offer his Nigel Dodds impression, Theresa May got an earthy taste of what was to come from Andrew Rosindell, the headbanging Tory MP for Romford.
Invoking thousands of furious constituents who definitely exist, the Brexiteer took aim at the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, and urged an alternative path: “Completely cutting away the tentacles of the EU over our treasured island nation once and for all.”
The Maybot whirred into action, and spoke, as if nothing had happened, about the virtues of her deal. She went on dispensing boilerplate as Corbyn asked lines that exposed the divisions on the muted government benches: how much would it cost to extend the transition? Would the Prime Minister hand the EU a blank cheque or stay in the backstop forever? Why is the Prime Minister imposing a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea? At that point, the DUP nodded along with appropriate menace.
Corbyn’s final question was almost superfluous. Would parliament reject the Prime Minister’s deal? If that much wasn’t already obvious, then the questions that ensued from Tory backbenchers made it crystal clear. May got scant support from her own benches, and dissent rained from all sides. Neil Parish, a Remainer, made clear he could not support the deal. Esther McVey, freed of collective responsibility and determined to make her old boss’s life as difficult as possible, asked May to guarantee whether the UK would leave the EU on March 29th 2019.
Dutifully, the Prime Minister did. This was rather difficult to square with remarks she made earlier in the session, in which she warned that her deal’s failure would risk “no Brexit at all”. As decision time approaches, Downing Street is trying to win the support of Conservative MPs with different inducements – warning Remainers of the risk of no deal, and warning Leavers that the Commons could block it or push through a new referendum to stop Brexit altogether. These arguments are less effective when you’re making both of them in front of everyone within twenty minutes of each other.
It fell to Nigel Dodds to confirm that the Prime Minister is cast miles adrift from safety, with no visible means of charting a safe course home: he accused May of “pushing the delete button” on an agreement that Northern Ireland’s assembly would be able to veto proposed changes to its trading relationship with the UK after Brexit. The May struggled on – but Dodds was not listening. Nor, it seems, is most of her own party.