PMQs review: Scattershot Corbyn lets May off the hook

PUBLISHED: 14:11 16 January 2019 | UPDATED: 14:11 16 January 2019

Theresa May speaking at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons

Theresa May speaking at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons

Parliament

The Labour leader had the chance to make the PM squirm after last night’s vote defeat - but chose to play his greatest hits instead.

Imagine being the leader of the opposition going into prime minister’s questions the morning after she had suffered the largest Commons defeat in British political history and hours before a vote of no confidence in her government.

The PM on the rack. Six questions in your back pocket to make her squirm. You’d feel like a Manchester City striker limbering up ahead of a league cup second leg against Burton.

So Jeremy Corbyn took to his feet in the Commons and... asked a couple of questions about Brexit, got bored and went off on a variety of other subjects instead, causing what could have been a bruising encounter for Theresa May to be an irritating tickle at best.

It started easily for her. Charlie Elphicke, a garden-variety Tory backbencher who once genuinely wrote a book called ‘Uh-Oh, We’re in Trouble: The Recession’s Come Along and Burst Brown’s Bubble’, took to his feet to ask if the PM agreed that the Conservatives had done a terrific job in government and were much better than the opposition.

May, putting to one side that what the Conservatives had actually done was recklessly and unnecessarily plunged the country into an unprecedented peacetime crisis, concurred that Elphicke was “absolutely right” and that they had done a terrific job. Thus a few more seconds of everybody’s short life were wasted.

Then Corbyn rose. He began with an OK line about how he had been wrong the previous night to describe it as the largest government defeat since the 1920s when it was it fact the largest ever, although it would have been better delivered by, say, Emily Thornberry, coupled with one of her theatrical eye-rolls.

He accused the PM of being “in denial” about the failure of her deal and asked if she was ruling out “any form of customs union” with the EU as part of her attempts to secure a consensus.

May said she would be listening to the views of MPs to identify what could command the support of the Commons and deliver on the EU referendum result. It would be the first of about 10 times she would trot this line out today, as if desperately trying to convince herself.

The Labour leader responded: “My question was about the customs union - the prime minister seems to be in denial about that, just as much as she’s in denial about the decision made by the House last night.

“I understand the Business Secretary [Greg Clark] told business leaders on a conference call last night: ‘We can’t have no-deal for all the reasons you’ve set out.’

“Can the prime minister now reassure the House, businesses and the country, and confirm that is indeed the government’s position, that we can’t have no-deal?”

May said Clark was making the point that a deal was required to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

And with that, two questions in, Corbyn had had his fill of Brexit and moved on to a Rowntree Foundation report on in-work poverty (published at the start of December), a UN special rapporteur report on poverty (published in November), education funding and police numbers.

And yes, important issues all and all worthy on pinning the PM down on, but it was another scattershot approach and also May had SUFFERED THE LARGEST COMMONS DEFEAT IN BRITISH POLITICAL HISTORY the previous night.

Elsewhere, in an oddly subdued PMQs given we’re in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. there were few real skirmishes. Ian Blackford, the SNP Westminster leader whose appearances now trigger audible sighs, went retro and described it as an “omnishambles” - a bit of nostalgia for more innocent times when a crisis was a chancellor being forced into a climbdown over pasties.

SNP colleague Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) reminded May that she “had a question at David Cameron’s last prime minister’s questions”. This probably won’t be May’s final one and, as ever, she owes Corbyn a debt of gratitude.

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