With Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn away, their relatively competent deputies faced a subdued Commons.
It was a quiet Commons for PMQs today, both aurally and in terms of the yawning gaps – particularly on the government benches – which only grew after the main action.
Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn were both in Northern Ireland for the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee. Ordinarily this would generate more light than heat: Lidington, unlike his boss, can think on his feet, and Thornberry, unlike her boss, has mastered the mystic skill of knowing where to place the stress in a sentence.
But for so many reasons – not just the murder of McKee, but the atrocity in Sri Lanka – this was a flat performance where, for the third PMQs in a row, Brexit took a back seat for most MPs.
After noting their sessions ‘usually involve trading a few jokes’, Thornberry – who it’s worth remembering isn’t actually her party’s democratically elected deputy leader – put on her serious face.
‘If the government is serious about putting the country first, the whole of our country, will the minister for the Cabinet Office accept that means finally getting serious about the cross-party negotiations and putting the option of a customs union on the table?,’ she asked.
Replying, Lidington,said: ‘The substance and the tone of those conversations between the government team and the opposition team have been constructive,’ while presumably crossing his fingers and using his other hand to surreptitiously stick pin needles into an effigy of Seumas Milne behind his back.
Thornberry then theatrically listed six reasons why the Tories’ mooted technical solution to the Northern Ireland border problem couldn’t work – not unreasonably, six variations on the fact that literally no such thing exists on the planet anywhere. Lidington countered the government was investing £20m into it. £20m! £20m would get you a half-decent full-back from a Championship football club, not a groundbreaking technological solution to a potentially intractable geopolitical crisis.
Thornberry also criticised Donald Trump’s forthcoming state visit.
‘The government is going to spend millions giving Donald Trump the red carpet, golden carriage treatment in June,’ she said.
‘And maybe the state banquet might even be worth it so as long as he’s forced to sit next to Greta Thunberg – or how about this, Greta on one side and David Attenborough on the other, that will be three hours well spent.’ Well, not for Thunberg and Attenborough, you wouldn’t have thought. What have they done to deserve that?
Lidington replied: ‘It’s just two short years ago that [Thornberry] said of President Trump ‘We should welcome the American president, we have to work with him’.
‘I just wonder whether something has changed about the US administration or whether something has changed about her own leadership ambitions that causes her to alter her words in this way now.’ Thornberry looked angry then retorted that it was the Conservatives having a leadership contest. Now Andrea Leadsom looked sad for some reason.
Elsewhere, the hardline Brexiteers largely bit their lips, tempered either by a sense of occasion or, more likely, that their favoured prey, May, was absent.
Tom Pursglove, a blowhard who was a councillor aged 18, rose to inform Lidington that ‘far from what some would have you believe, those of us who voted to leave knew exactly what we were voting for’. Pursglove doesn’t believe climate change is a thing. He’ll go far in the new Conservatives.