Shortly before asking the EU for another Article 50 extension, Theresa May got up for PMQs to muted cheers with vast swathes of empty benches behind her. Here’s what we’ve learnt from the session.
There’s still lots of Brexit anger on the Tory backbenches
The first question May received was a timely reminder that, as she sets off for Brussels, the angry Brexiteers in her party aren’t going anywhere. North Warwickshire MP Craig Tracey called on May to pursue a no-deal Brexit and ensure that leaving the EU means leaving both the single market and customs union. May replied that the party would make a success of Brexit whatever form it took.
A second hostile backbench question came much later in the session. Crawley MP Henry Smith complained that the money spent on a year-long Brexit extension could be put to better use. May pointed out that we could have left the EU by now if he and others had voted for her deal.
Labour is fighting the local elections campaign on safe territory
But anyone distractedly watching this week’s PMQs session would be forgiven for forgetting the country is in peak Brexit crisis mode. Instead, the local elections — for which both Labour and the Tories launched their campaigns and party political broadcasts this week — took centre stage.
The Labour campaign says that cuts to local government have severely damaged public services including schools, hospitals and policing. Jeremy Corbyn doubled down on that attack in PMQs today, and his MPs united behind him in their own lines of questioning. It’s safe ground for the party, with polls consistently showing that the public trusts it more than the Conservatives on public services, particularly the NHS.
Labour has one eye on a general election
In his questions, Corbyn repeatedly name-checked Swindon and Stoke-on-Trent, both of which are important Labour targets with council seats up for election on 2 May. He compared the level of local government cuts and deprivation they have suffered with those of Tory-voting Surrey.
But importantly, Swindon South and Stoke-on-Trent South are both key general election targets. Labour lost Swindon South to Tory MP Robert Buckland in 2010, but increased its vote share by 9 per cent in 2017. Stoke-on-Trent was one of the few seats the party lost in 2017, to Tory MP Jack Brereton, who has a majority of just 663. Both are considered must-wins if Labour is to form a majority in the next election.
MPs could be allowed to vote on second ref again
It was left to the SNP’s Ian Blackford to ask Brexit questions from the opposition benches. May told him the government’s position on a second referendum “has not changed”. But she suggested that MPs could vote on the issue when the deal is brought back to the Commons. “It may be that there are those in this House that wish to press that issue as legislation goes through,” she said.
It suggests that if Labour’s price for backing the deal is another Commons vote on a second referendum, May is willing to pay it. But it’s not at all clear that that will be enough for the Labour team, with several senior figures pushing for the party to only back a deal if it is also put to the people in a confirmatory second referendum.
The SNP is doubling down on its attack on the ‘Brexit parties’
Taking advantage of the cross-party talks, Blackford said that “there is no such thing as a good Tory-Labour Brexit deal”, and went on to lump them together as the two “Brexit parties”. The SNP’s strategy is to present itself to Scottish voters as the only pro-Remain party in the Commons. Labour and the Tories — both of whom will be aggressively targeting Scottish seats at the next election — will have to find a way to change the terms of that debate.