PMQs review: Emily Thornberry exposes the Tories’ big Brexit problem

Theresa May’s deputy David Lidington helplessly pleaded for Labour to “get behind us”. 

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At the Nato summit in Brussels, Theresa May is seeking to prevent Donald Trump from destroying the Western alliance. Back in Westminster, May’s loyal deputy David Lidington faced Emily Thornberry at PMQs.

As is customary, the shadow foreign secretary began in humorous style. “I may know very little about football,” she remarked (Lidington predictably offered to give her a St George's flag), but even I can see that England’s progress so far at the World Cup shows what can be achieved when all the individuals players work effectively as a team, when there’s a clear game plan, and when they’re all working together. And of course, when everyone respects and listens to the manager.

“So can I simply ask the minister of state what he thinks the England team could teach this shambles of a government?”

Lidington faithfully replied that May (“the team captain”) had the “full support of the squad” for the white paper that would be published. He described Labour’s alternative plan as “one of the best-kept secrets in politics” (a charge that also applies to the rebel Brexiteers).

Thornberry responded with further quips: likening the cabinet to “Reservoir Dogs remade by the Chuckle Brothers” and noting that “even Donald Trump can see they’re in turmoil and he hasn’t even got to Britain yet”.

After a strong opening, however, she became trapped in the detail of the government’s trade proposals (a matter on which Lidington, unlike some cabinet ministers, is well-briefed). The shadow foreign secretary mocked “the Chequers delusion” but struggled to unsettle Lidington (who repeatedly accused her of misunderstanding the “facilitated customs arrangement”). After the humiliating loss of two cabinet ministers (making seven in eight months), Thornberry would have been wiser to mount a broader political attack.

But she made the pertinent point that China and others would have little incentive to sign a trade deal with the UK should it remain in the EU single market for goods. Why, she asked, would they let Britain sell its services if the EU would determine the rules for their goods?

Thornberry also exposed the essential weakness of the government’s position. At the close of their exchange, Lidington told her to “get behind us”, rather than “carping from the sidelines”. The Tories do not merely want the support of Labour MPs - they need it. Should Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Brexiteers vote against May’s anticipated deal, only opposition votes will save her. But Labour, whose overriding aim is to trigger an election, has no intention of bailing the Prime Minister out.

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.