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30 January 2019

Three things we learned from this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions

Labour edges closer to a Brexit compromise – but will voters even care?

By Patrick Maguire

Austerity continues to bite

Today’s session began with a sharp reminder that, despite Westminster’s navel-gazing over Brexit, most voters do not share their obsession. Labour’s Toby Perkins challenged the prime minister on cuts to the further education college in his Chesterfield constituency and others like it. Since 2010, FE budgets have fallen by 30 per cent in real terms.

May, as is the wont of Tory ministers when they are confronted with this line of questioning, denied there was a problem. One of the lessons of the 2017 election was that many voters disagree, especially when it comes to cuts to education provision – an issue on which unions are able to mount effective campaigns.

The Prime Minister dismisses the impact of such cuts at her peril – they, rather than Brexit, could yet determine the next election.

Jeremy Corbyn is ready to vote for a Brexit deal…

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The Labour leader will meet the Prime Minister for talks on Brexit this afternoon, and it is clear that his preference is for some sort of negotiated settlement passing the Commons.

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Renewing his call for a permanent customs union, he stressed that parliament’s responsibility was to “bring people together, whether they voted Leave or Remain”. This is also how described Labour’s electoral mission, or challenge, in a speech in Wakefield last month.

It was Corbyn’s most explicit indication yet that his preference for taking no deal off the table – as willed by parliament in non-binding fashion last night – is to vote for a deal brokered with the Prime Minister. (He shares this view with May, who repeatedly acknowledged last night’s vote against no deal but refused to legitimise anything but her vote for her deal as a means to affect it.)

This, rather than calling for an Article 50 extension as an end in itself or for a second referendum, is likely to be Labour’s endgame. Its viability depends on the extent to which the prime minister and indeed the leader of the opposition are prepared to compromise.

…and he might need to if he wants to stop no-deal

Asked just what “alternative arrangements” she intended to seek to replace the Irish backstop with, May could offer nothing but flannel. (This is an affliction her Brexit Secretary, Steve Barclay, also betrayed on the broadcast round this morning.)

Tellingly, she suggested that trusted trader schemes might alleviate the need for border infrastructure – a position advanced by the government in summer 2017 before it was summarily rejected by the EU and subsequently binned.

The inescapable truth of May’s doomed drive to renegotiate the backstop is that there are no alternative arrangements she can suggest that have not already been dismissed by Brussels – or indeed, by herself.

Barring a dramatic shift in position from either Dublin or the DUP – neither of whom appear to be for turning – the promise upon which May built her slim majority for a deal cannot hold, and she will have to find another.