PMQs Review: The one with the empty benches

PUBLISHED: 16:22 01 May 2019 | UPDATED: 18:39 01 May 2019

Theresa May at PMQs. Photograph: House of Commons/PA.

Theresa May at PMQs. Photograph: House of Commons/PA.

Another PMQs where Brexit barely warranted a mention. Little wonder most MPs seemed to stay away.

Theresa May speaking at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons (Pic: Parliament)Theresa May speaking at prime minister's questions in the House of Commons (Pic: Parliament)

The extension of Article 50 seems to have lifted a cloud over British politics, the media and public. With a parliamentary recess scheduled to be cancelled going ahead, the nation seemed to be able to focus on other things. Climate change. Notre Dame. Line of Duty. Percy Pigs.

At Westminster, though, things should now be things as usual. The extension is only for another five months. It's a real opportunity for MPs to get forensic on the government's plans and hold their feet to the fire.

Except it seems that MPs have got the taste for thinking about literally anything other than Brexit. And thus, with politics in its most serious peacetime crisis in a century, we got through an entire session of PMQs with just ONE question on it.

And why, come late October when we'll be exactly as we were, in an existential zugzwang, people will ask: what were they doing all that time? And the answer will come: well, the prime minister was answering buffet-ball questions as to whether she will “continue to focus relentlessly” on schools in rural areas from Ed Vaizey.

It's little wonder the benches were so empty.

May started the session with one of those moments where she pretends to have a sense of humour, noting that her PPS Andrew Bowie (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) completed the London Marathon in three hours 40 minutes at the weekend. “And no, I wasn't chasing him at the time,” she said. You could imagine her being presented with this zinger by her advisor. “Why would I have been chasing him?,” she would have asked, flummoxed.

She also noted it was the 312th anniversary - an iconic anniversary if ever there was one - of the “precious” Act of Union between England and Scotland. This was her opportunity to have another pop at the SNP over independence. This is becoming an increasingly occurring theme, as if she is much more comfortable discussing the referendum the UK government actually won.

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The main action? Well, after last week's performance from supply teachers David Lidington and Emily Thornberry, we were back to the old routine: Jeremy Corbyn doing his clip for Facebook and May hers for the News At Ten.

“Poverty is up, waiting times are up, violent crime is up, all under a government that seems to care more about pushing its very damaging austerity agenda than tackling the burning social injustices,” said Corbyn.

“Ahead of tomorrow's elections in England, can the prime minister explain that from social care to crime, from life expectancy to poverty, things are getting worse under her government?” Facebook clip: tick.

May: “The biggest cash boost to the NHS in its history under this Conservative government, more people in work than ever before, more children in good and outstanding schools getting the opportunities for their futures.

“And what do we see from Conservative councils up and down the country? Conservative councils give better services; they recycle more; they fix more potholes and they charge lower taxes.” New At Ten clip? Tick.

And that one Brexit question? It was from SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, who noted that the UK government is to cut EU student visas to three years, and that this would have a negative effect on people studying in Scotland as Scottish university courses often run for four years.

He called on May to commit to extending visas to cover this, saying: “Scottish university courses are generally for four years. The Scottish Government and Scottish universities have asked repeatedly for this simple change to be made to reflect our circumstances.”

May said the SNP should spend more time “improving the quality of education in Scotland, and less time obsessing about independence”.

And on and on we go to October, fingers in ears, eyes closed and the clock ticking.

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