PMQs should be Parliament’s showpiece occasion of the week, but increasingly Tory MPs seem to find better things to do
Back in 2006, a five-page leaked memo spelled out exactly how Tony Blair’s team wanted his farewell tour as PM to go, with appearances on Blue Peter, Songs of Praise and Chris Evans’ radio show part of secret Downing Street plans to let him step down in a blaze of glory.
Blair needed to go “with the crowds wanting more” said the memo with the very New Labour title ‘Reconnecting with the public – a new relationship with the media’.
There are no crowds wanting more of Theresa May. Indeed, so few Tory MPs are now turning up to her few remaining PMQs that when SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford rose to speak today, he could even be heard over the jeering from the government benches.
What are they all finding to do at 12pm on a Wednesday? True, it’s the time of day that various lobbying organisations – the Rutland dairy farmers’ association, the British Black Pudding Board, that sort of thing – seek to entice ligging backbenchers into rooms around Westminster with offers of free food. Or maybe they’re all watching the cricket and tennis.
Whatever they’re doing, they once again didn’t miss a great deal, although it was one of those rare occasions Jeremy Corbyn decided to focus on Britain’s greatest peacetime political crisis rather than bus services in South Yorkshire.
Opening the leaders’ exchanges, Corbyn highlighted warnings from Philip Hammond of a £90bn hit to the Treasury’s coffers in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“The former foreign secretary [Boris Johnson] says concerns about no-deal are confected hysteria,” he fumed. “Who does the prime minister think is right?”.
We all had a pretty good idea who she thought was right, but May had a script: she had brought a deal to Parliament three times, and three times Labour had voted it down. “I can look workers in the eye and tell them I voted to leave with a deal that protects jobs,” she glared. “You can’t do that, because you voted three times for no-deal.”
Corbyn also highlighted no-deal Brexit concerns from motor manufacturers and traders before noting Vauxhall had said its decision to produce a new Astra at Ellesmere Port was conditional on the final terms of the UK’s exit from the EU.
“So what can the prime minister say to workers at Ellesmere Port and elsewhere… why doesn’t she speak to both of the candidates to succeed her and remind them that as they trade insults over no-deal, it’s thousands of jobs that are at risk the more they ratchet up their rhetoric?”
May replied: “I’ll tell him what I’d say to workers at Ellesmere Port: I and the vast majority of Conservative members in this House voted to protect their jobs.
“The Labour Party whipped three times against a deal, the Labour Party whipped three times for no-deal. The threat to those Ellesmere Port jobs is from the Labour Party.” And the European Research Group, one suspects she’d love to add.
Corbyn, she said, was “all mouth and trousers” – better, at least, than her likely successor, who struggles to keep the latter on.
Following a strong performance last week, Blackford returned to par this week, branding the UK Government’s expected review of Scottish devolution “nothing more than an act of sheer desperation”.
May replied that “first of all there is no review into devolution, there is only one party in this House who wants to stop devolution in Scotland and that’s the Scottish National Party.” Which is actually an odder sentence to utter than the trousers thing.
Elsewhere, former leader of the House and actual mother Andrea Leadsom made her first intervention in PMQs since her pointless resignation, asking about Early Years. May graciously thanked her for her work in government, although, to be fair, she’s had plenty of opportunities to hone the through-gritted-teeth mini leaving speech.
And finally, Jack Brereton, a baby-faced Tory backbencher most notable for once misspelling Brexit on a campaign poster, asked if the PM would “agree with me that we need to see investment into our towns and particularly our future high streets fund bid for Longton”.
May said she was “very pleased to see the renaissance in Stoke-on-Trent and particularly the ceramics industry in Stoke-on-Trent”. And looked at that moment like a woman looking forward to getting her Wednesday lunchtimes back to raid the tables of provincial food peddlers and watch the cricket.