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19 December 2018

Stupidgate and six other things we learned from this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions

Jeremy Corbyn’s dislike of the Commons chamber united a government whose divisions he so deftly exploited.

By Patrick Maguire

1. Jeremy Corbyn’s Commons performances can still be a liability for Labour

Even Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allies admit that he is neither entirely comfortable nor at his best in the Commons chamber, where his performances are often antsy and his demeanour irritable. On a day where a strong line of questioning from the Labour leader on Brexit delivered a clear win over Theresa May, that inconvenient truth saw him become the story.

Having been accused by Corbyn of a “criminal waste of money” over no-deal planning, the Prime Minister engaged her benches in a pantomime call-and-response routine. “I know it’s the Christmas season and the pantomime season,” she said. “He’s going to put a confidence vote – oh yes he is, oh no she isn’t…I’ve got some advice. Look behind you! They are not impressed and neither is the country.”

As the cameras panned to the leader of the opposition, he was caught muttering something that looked an awful lot like “stupid woman”. His spokesman insists he said “stupid people”, and that denial – and refusal to apologise – will ensure this one runs and runs.

It was met by opprobrium and an outbreak of unity on the Tory benches, who demanded an apology from Corbyn in several points of order after PMQs had finished. It’s a salutary reminder that no matter how parlous things are for the government – and how well Labour is exploiting that weakness – Corbyn’s weakness as a Commons performer can very quickly become the story.

In this case, it’s engendered near-universal sympathy for a Prime Minister loathed by many on her own benches – some small relief as she attempts to convince wavering MPs that backing her withdrawal agreement is essentially a partisan issue.

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2. The Tories still hate John Bercow – but he won’t go anytime soon

The ruckus over Corbyn’s alleged aside was followed by an even testier exchange between John Bercow – who refused to intervene or demand an apology – and Andrea Leadsom, in which the Commons leader asked why the Speaker had not apologised when he had called her a “stupid woman” in May.

Her intervention from the government frontbench delighted many of her colleagues, few of whom took heed of the Speaker’s calls for order as he came in for hectic questioning after the session.

Though an indignant Bercow played down her remarks – stressing the exchange had happened months ago and questioning why Leadsom had not raised the issue since – the exchange, and how Tory MPs reacted to it, underlines the depth and scale of animosity between the Speaker and the governing party. Even Anna Soubry, no friend of the prime minister, questioned why Bercow had not taken action against the leader of the opposition and contended that he would have, had Corbyn’s alleged remark come from a Conservative MP.

A friendly intervention from Labour’s Margaret Beckett followed. Her accusation that Tory MPs had “orchestrated [a] riot” and were attempting to shout Bercow down reflects the seemingly immovable force that will keep the Speaker in the chair, no matter how angry his former party gets: the almost unconditional trust and support of Labour MPs.

3. Most Brexiteers are giving Theresa May a reprieve…

Even before Jeremy Corbyn united her party around her, the Prime Minister was given a noticeably smooth ride by those who sought to oust her as Conservative leader last week. Andrew Bridgen, the backbench Brexiteer for whom no grievance is too petty, chose to ask May about the South African government rather than the EU. Coming as it did after a marked de-escalation of rhetoric from the leadership of the European Research Group, it is hard to escape the conclusion that most Tory Leavers have chosen to give the Prime Minister a reprieve.

4. …but some are still carrying on the guerrilla war

But does that hold true for all of them? The most hostile Tory question of the session came from Philip Davies, the fundamentalist MP for Shipley, who asked whether May had taken legal advice on whether the UK would still be liable to pay its £39bn divorce bill to the EU in the event of no deal. Even if it ends up being much smaller than the 100-plus MPs who stated their opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement before the meaningful vote was pulled, there is still a sizeable minority of Tory MPs who won’t be convinced to resile from their opposition.

5. The DUP is not for turning

In a minority parliament, the 20 or so MPs like Davies matter enormously – especially given that the DUP, for all the crumbs of comfort some observers have seized upon in recent days, still want something that the Prime Minister doesn’t appear to be asking for and can’t deliver anyway: changes to the Withdrawal Agreement itself. The party’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, asked the prime minister whether she could guarantee that she would get the changes – not reassurances – his 10 MPs want on the Irish backstop.

She could not offer them, and that fact is incredibly unlikely to have changed by January. Regardless of how emollient the DUP has sounded this week, it has not budged. As long as they are opposed, winning a majority – and the votes of Tory Brexiteers – will prove incredibly difficult for the Prime Minister. And it’s still clear that she is staking her future, and that of the UK, on being able to do the impossible and pull this off – she told Justine Greening that she was seeking “further discussion” on the backstop. We know that those discussions have already concluded with an unsatisfactory answer as far as what May wanted to win back her side of the Commons goes. Even allowing for the more fraternal mood, it’s still how to see how it ends well.

6. On Brexit, attacking Corbyn as a man without a plan lets Labour off the hook

Having accused Labour of wanting to block Brexit last week, May focused her attacks today on its lack of a plan to deliver it. She accused Corbyn of refusing to say what sort of exit he was for, and described the opposition’s position as “meaningless”. But for the Labour leadership, that fungible stance is precisely the point –  any move in either a more Brexity or Remainy direction threatens to destabilise their delicate electoral coalition. Though the Prime Mminister does have a clear lead over Corbyn as far as polling on leadership goes, it felt less effective as an attack line.

7. A Labour split is still on the cards

Will the PLP survive 2019 intact? Labour backbencher John Mann asked a very pointed question on anti-Semitism, urging politicians to “stand up and be counted” in their opposition to discrimination against Jewish people. Though the split many expected this summer did not come to fruition, tensions remain – and once the UK’s divorce from Brussels is finalised, they could explode again.

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