PMQs review: no deal means no deal?

PUBLISHED: 15:24 19 December 2018 | UPDATED: 15:24 19 December 2018

Theresa May attempts to bully MPs into voting for her Brexit deal, while Philip Hammond dreams of a long-ago holiday romance

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If the prime minister wanted to use PMQs to scotch the idea her no-deal planning is a ruse to coax MPs into voting for her deal, she didn't do a very good job of it.

There is a view common among MPs that, rather than no-deal Brexit planning being a serious contingency measure - after all, if it was, wouldn't we now be transforming Kent into the world's largest customs checkpoint? - but a crude method of bullying them into voting for her unloved plan. "You don't like the thought of youths jacked up on untreated seawater looting Superdrug, eh? Then perhaps you'd like to give my deal a second look."

Were Theresa May looking to disavow parliamentarians of that notion at PMQs today, though, she was as convincing as three children in a single mac atop each other's shoulders (© every Whizzer and Chips, 1969-1990).

For MP after MP stood up to question whether the prime minister was seriously going to shove Britain into a suicidal cliff-edge Brexit. And each time the PM faced them down with a "then perhaps you'd like to give my deal a second look". Or words to that effect.

The session started as a normal PMQs might start at this time of year in a normal Parliament in a normal country, with May wishing all Members and staff a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And then immediately got weird, with Jeremy Corbyn wishing the same a "peaceful and welcome 2019". A welcome 2019? Is this a thing? Does Clinton's now sell 'Welcome New Year' cards? Perhaps people in Islington doff their Lenin caps to each other on January 1 and bid each other a Welcome New Year. Odd. It certainly caused a bit of consternation on the benches opposite, though, to which Corbyn, rummaging in his head for three more random words, yelled "I've gained acquiescence!".

Still, it made more sense than his questioning strategy. The best part of three-and-a-half years into the job, and Corbyn has yet to master the skill of listening to the prime minister's response and then tailoring his follow-up question to best effect, preferring to blunder on with what's on his flash card irrespective as to how the PM answered his previous question.

Thus Corbyn asked when the meaningful vote on May's doomed Brexit deal was going to be, and she told him when it would be, and he said, no, when is it going to be and she said well this is when it's going to be and it went on and on until everyone was in danger of being pulled into some sort of vortex.

To be fair, Corbyn landed one blow, reminding May - or entirely possibly, telling her for the first time - the next meeting of the European Council was not until March, two months after the rescheduled meaningful vote is supposed to take place.

"She will be bringing back the same deal she pulled last week - it's an intolerable situation and she is simply playing for time," he said, not inaccurately.

May said her "achievements" with EU negotiators would be set out in the new year - perhaps written on the back of one of those bon mots found in a Christmas cracker - and again insisted Corbyn had no alternative Brexit deal.

"I know it's Christmas and he has looked in his stocking, down the chimney, under the Christmas tree, but he still has not found a Brexit plan," she said. "He has to accept his responsibility for delivering on Brexit."

Corbyn countered that the PM had "thrown away two years on her botched negotiators" and was "holding Parliament and the country to ransom" and "dithering".

On that, May reminded Corbyn that he had spent the week saying he was calling a vote of no confidence, then wasn't, then was but it wouldn't be a proper one. "He's going to need a confidence vote!," she said. "Oh yes he is! I've got some advice for the honourable gentleman! Look behind you! They're not impressed!". This was a joke on pantomime season, you see, although from the delivery it is not entirely clear May knows what a pantomime is, like a bit-part actor from The Big Bang Theory suddenly finding themselves booked for two months at the Rhyl Pavilion.

Respite came from Tim Loughton, a Tory buffoon who unaccountable chairs the Home Affairs Select Committee and wasted valuable parliamentary time to wish May a "well-deserved Chequers chillax" and Ian Blackford, the SNP leader who watched Corbyn's strategy and matched it scene-for-scene, like that pointless remake of Psycho a few years ago.

More danger was posed from Stella Creasy (Labour), Sarah Wollaston (Conservative) and Justine Greening (Conservative), three able women who in normal times would be on their party's frontbenches instead of wasting the best years of their careers out of meaningful office. All three tested May's earnestness in lavishing billions of pounds on a no-deal Brexit nobody remotely sane thinks she's going to pursue. "Then perhaps you'd like to give my deal a second look," May sort-of said to each.

Still, there's always one willing to give up their credibility to bowl the cricket-loving PM a buffet ball (as in: help yourself) and today's was Caroline Spelman, a Midlands Tory whose two-year spell as environment secretary even she has possibly forgotten. Wouldn't the best way to avoid no deal, she said - I paraphrase - to be to vote for the prime minister's deal? Why yes, agreed May, she was "absolutely right". A peaceful and welcome 2019 to Spelman, then. And nobody else.

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