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9 January 2019

Three things we learned from today’s Prime Minister’s Questions

Until MPs vote on the withdrawal agreement, Commons exchanges on Brexit are just noise.

By Patrick Maguire

The first Prime Minister’s Questions of 2019 was very much like those we endured in 2018 — with lots of familiar lines on Brexit and little else by way of new information. Here are the big three takeaways.

1) The most significant Brexit developments aren’t happening in the Commons chamber

On Brexit, today’s edition of PMQs offered familiar variations on even more familiar themes. Theresa May insisted that the only way to avoid a no-deal scenario was by voting for her withdrawal agreement, and refused to commit to holding indicative votes on alternatives.  Jeremy Corbyn reminded the chamber that Labour could not support the prime minister’s deal, and that there had been no change to the binding legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement and thus no reason for the DUP or Tory Brexiteers to change their minds. The SNP’s Pete Wishart made the novel observation that the Withdrawal Agreement was “as dead as a dodo”. Nothing. Has. Changed.

There is nobody in the Commons chamber – with the possible exception of the DUP’s Nigel Dodds – who can say anything that will change the fundamentals of this dynamic if the positions of the Labour and Conservative leaderships do not budge. It is only in Brussels that meaningful change could be affected. That isn’t forthcoming either, and by any measure May herself said she is only seeking additional assurances and clarifications – which we know are insufficient as far as solving her political problems go. Until the Withdrawal Agreement is defeated, exchanges in the Commons such as today’s are just noise.

2) Conservative MPs have one eye on a general election

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It isn’t often that we hear Iain Duncan Smith speak in the Commons on a subject that isn’t Brexit or welfare policy, his two political obsessions. But given the chance to challenge Theresa May this afternoon, however, he chose to ask about the fate a hospital in his Chingford & Woodford Green constituency.

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Duncan Smith is defending a slender majority of just 2,438 in the Greater London seat, which backed Remain in 2016 and is a regular haunt for Labour and Momentum campaigners. His decision to use his slot to guarantee positive news coverage on a local issue – rather than launch another boilerplate Brexit broadside – reflects the extent to which Tory MPs who represent marginal constituencies are conscious that this parliament could soon come crashing down, and with it subject them to the tender mercies of an insurgent Labour.

3) The Tories think they’ve found an effective attack against Sadiq Khan – but who is it for?

The softest question of the session came from Paul Scully, the Conservative vice-chair responsible for coordinating the party’s campaigning efforts in London. He asked May whether she agreed that the Labour mayor of the capital, second referendum advocate Sadiq Khan, should support the Brexit deal, citing the fact that more Londoners voted for Brexit (1.5m) than voted for Khan (1.1m).

The comparison has been doing the rounds on social media for some time, but Scully’s decision to give it its highest profile airing yet suggests that the Tories think there is political capital to be made from it ahead of next year’s elections to the mayoralty, where the party’s lacklustre candidate Shaun Bailey will need all the help he can get.

But can it work? Not if the Conservatives want to win, which they are incredibly unlikely to do anyway. The comparison only works on a superficial level and when you express the figures as raw numbers, which isn’t illuminating or useful given the differences in turnout (45.3 per cent for the 2016 mayoral election and 69.7 per cent for the EU referendum). When you compare the percentage figures – 44.3 per cent in first preference votes for Khan and 40.1 per cent for Brexit – it isn’t at all sound. Then there is the separate and more important question of whether such an explicitly pro-Brexit campaign could ever do anything but alienate a majority of London’s electorate, 59.9 per cent of whom backed Remain.

If attacking Khan – and by extension Labour – as wanting to thwart Brexit works anywhere, it will be in the North and Midlands, not in the capital.