PMQs review: Corbyn’s unlikely alliance exposes May’s impossible Brexit task

Attacks from Labour and all sides of the Tory Brexit divide underlined why May’s deal has scant chance of passing the Commons. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Jeremy Corbyn and Peter Bone, the antediluvian Tory Brexiteer, are separated by just three years in age – and one would assume that the gulf between their politics would be better measured in light years. But as Theresa May ran the Commons gauntlet en route to her Cabinet reckoning this afternoon, the unlikely lads sang from the same hymn sheet.

The Leader of the Opposition’s job could not have been easier: he attacked May’s deal as a failure on its own terms, and demanded to know whether she would still offer parliament a choice between her bad deal and no deal at all. The Prime Minister groped for a weak defence – Corbyn, she said, did not want a deal. She was half-right: Corbyn does not want her deal, and nor, of course, do many of May’s own MPs – as he quickly reminded her, citing the resignation of Jo Johnson. May did manage to raise a rare cheer from her own benches when she evoked splits between Corbyn and Keir Starmer, his shadow Brexit secretary, on the question of stopping Brexit – but it rang hollow on a day when ministers are likely to deny her version a start.

Though some of Corbyn’s ERG-esque attack lines did raise questions – if Labour were to insist, as his line of questioning implied, that parliament should have the right to unilaterally withdraw from the backstop, then what would its own Withdrawal Agreement look like? But with a restive cabinet visibly squirming on May’s frontbench – and several Brexiteers absent – the only questions that mattered were those the Prime Minister was dodging. In that context, punching the bruises inflicted by May’s own party was worth the cost of exposing Labour’s incoherence.

Immediately after Corbyn came Bone, who gave May an even ruder reminder of the impossibility of the task ahead. In a nakedly confrontational blue-on-blue attack that stood out even in the present atmosphere of overheated rhetoric from Tory backbenchers, he warned: “If the media reports are accurate, you are not delivering the result that people voted for and you will lose the support of many of your MPs and the public.” Similarly barbed questions on the shape of the deal came from Julia Lopez, a 2017 intake Tory Brexiteer, and Kate Hoey, the Labour Leaver who has already said she will not vote for it. Without a majority, one unhappy MP is too many – and unhappily for Downing Street, today underlined that May has an embarrassment of riches on that front.

As it so often does, it fell to Ken Clarke to give voice to the truth that is neither in May or Corbyn’s interest to admit. Helpfully demanding that the Prime Minister come before the Commons to explain all 500 pages of her deal once it is published later in the week, the Father of the House drily wished her luck for securing a majority...”for some course of action which is in the national interest”. Unless Clarke has been reprogrammed by Downing Street, he isn’t talking about May’s deal. The elegant brutality of his intervention raised a chuckle from a haggard Julian Smith – though on today’s evidence, the chief whip is going to have precious little to smile about.  

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.