PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn revels in the Tories' Brexit divisions

The Labour leader embarrassed Theresa May as he asked: “If the Prime Minister can't even convince her own cabinet on Brexit, how can she convince 27 other EU countries?”


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Mindful that the cabinet had made no progress on Brexit since last week, Jeremy Corbyn again revelled in the Tories’ divisions at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The Labour leader’s opener was typically well-crafted: “When the Prime Minister wrote at the weekend that she wanted ‘as little friction as possible’, was she talking about EU trade or the next cabinet meeting?”

Theresa May, who lacked a similarly humorous riposte, sought to defend through attack, demanding that Corbyn rule out a second EU referendum. But the Labour leader, who is only charged with asking questions, persisted and made the essential point: “There's been no progress in the negotiations for five months. The reality is that the cabinet is more interested in negotiating with each other than it is with the European Union.”

As regards progress, May could only cite a forthcoming Brexit white paper (not the most reassuring reply when 23 months have passed since the referendum and just 10 are left before exit day). When she insisted that “everyone knows” the government’s policy, even Brexit Secretary David Davis could not suppress a smirk.

The Prime Minister maintained that she wanted both to avoid a customs union and to avoid a hard Irish border, but nothing she said suggested she is any closer to reconciling these two aims. (Nor, when asked by Corbyn, could May say how many new HMRC staff had been recruited for Brexit.)

The cabinet is engaged in what one could call Brexitentialist theatre: perpetually arguing over options deemed mutually unworkable by the EU. Corbyn mockingly congratulated May on formally dividing her cabinet into two rival camps - “as if it needs doing”. If she couldn't  “convince her own cabinet, the Labour leader asked, “how can she convince 27 other EU countries?”

Corbyn ended by inviting the Prime Minister to “step aside” and let him lead the negotiations. There is little prospect of that (May, who has survived for nearly a year without a majority, is nothing if not resilient). But as long as the Conservatives remain in office, one can safely predict that Corbyn will able to exploit their epic and endless divisions.

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.