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13 March 2019

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

Theresa May wants to paint Jeremy Corbyn as a wrecker - but Brexit is lower on the public's agenda than she might like.

By Patrick Maguire

Theresa May wants to paint Jeremy Corbyn as a wrecker

Repeatedly challenged by the Labour leader on the resounding rejection of her deal by Parliament last night, the prime minister offered the same rejoinder each time: if Labour really wanted to prevent a no-deal outcome, why did it persist in voting down the only deal on the table? And just what did Labour want anyway?

May employed a similar strategy after the first defeat of her deal in January. She clearly thinks there is mileage – and public sympathy – in casting Corbyn as an opportunistic, implacable goalpost-shifter with no regard for the national interest.

Some Tory Brexiteers will never climb down…

Leaver John Baron opened the session with a pointed demand for the Prime Minister to acknowledge that a no-deal Brexit on March 29 remained the legal default – and, more trickily, that it was still “better than a bad deal”. 

May offered a similar fudge to the rather confused proposition that MPs will vote on today: stating her preference for a “good deal” but insisting that no-deal remained on the table and indeed preferable to a bad one. 

The prime minister’s problem is that dozens of Tory MPs agree with her argument – and disagree with her assertion that hers is a good deal. Though for reasons of party management she is still indulging hardliners like Baron, there will be no reconciling them to her deal as long as no-deal is a viable option.

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…so unity will always be illusory…

Both veteran Brexiteer Peter Bone and European Research Group ranter-in-chief Mark Francois, meanwhile, urged the Prime Minister to unite her party and support the so-called Malthouse Compromise and leave without a withdrawal agreement – a demand she politely rejected, citing the EU’s unflinching opposition.

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As much as May is still contriving to keep the Tory tent intact, her exchange with Bone underlines the extent to which she will only ever be able to unite her party around Brexit positions that will combust as soon as they leave Westminster.

…and discontent on domestic issues is growing

Andrew Rosindell and Mike Wood, two Conservative backbenchers, struck a decidedly indignant tone as they demanded that the government review sentencing guidelines for knife possession. 

Both are committed Brexiteers, so it is striking that both alighted on an issue other than the EU – and more arresting still that it was the same issue. Today marks the second week in a row that crime – and knife crime in particular – topped the Any Other Business league table at prime minister’s questions. 

The electoral cost of failing to satisfy her backbenchers’ calls for a more robust response could ultimately be greater than that incurred by fudging Brexit. Labour’s Stephen Hepburn issued a similar warning on cuts to school budgets. It should serve to remind us of the object lesson of the 2017 election: that any snap campaign won’t be defined by Brexit.

For Leavers, Philip Hammond’s Treasury is as bad as Brussels

Shailesh Vara, who resigned as a minister to oppose the Withdrawal Agreement, asked whether the Chancellor would make all possible funds available for no-deal preparation in this afternoon’s Spring Statement: a testament to the widespread dislike and distrust of the Treasury, its forecasts and motivations on Brexit.