For a Prime Minister whose European talks ended in failure two days ago and whose government is collapsing around her, Theresa May seemed confident and assertive in the Commons today.
She didn’t answer any questions, and all her answers were, in effect, “Nothing has changed.” Nothing had changed on Brexit, Jerusalem, the Motability charity and the bottleneck on the A417 in Gloucestershire.
But Jeremy Corbyn showed why he doesn’t normally ask questions about Europe. He devoted all six of his questions to the subject and got nowhere. On a day when May seemed to have lost control of the Brexit negotiations, the Labour leader got some good sound bites on to the news bulletins, but failed completely to ruffle a supposedly weak Prime Minister.
Corbyn quoted Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, who said a deal with the EU would be the “easiest in human history”; and he turned “coalition of chaos”, the Tory election slogan, against them. But he had no argument, because, on Brexit, the Labour Party doesn’t have a different position from the Government’s.
UK news in pictures
Or, rather, it has several positions. Labour is just as divided as the Conservatives. The Prime Minister had one prepared line today, which was to say that, with half the opposition wanting to stay in the single market and the other half wanting to get out, “the only hard border is down the middle of the Labour Party”.
It wasn’t a great put-down, and she didn’t deliver it with any dramatic conviction, but it is true that Corbyn’s party is divided. This might not matter if Labour had a brilliant parliamentary performer as leader, but it doesn’t.
So they traded well-worn lines – “all the Labour Party is planning for is a run on the pound”; “this really is a shambles” – and the real debate moved elsewhere.
It was Labour backbenchers who cried “How?” repeatedly when May said the aim of the deal was to avoid a hard border in Ireland, which forced her to declare: “That’s the whole point of the second phase of the negotiations.” Which is, in fact, a sort of answer.
The most dangerous questions for the Prime Minister came from her own side. Even more than the Democratic Unionist Party, the Tory Brexiters fear the draft text on the Irish border is going to sell out what they say the people voted for in the referendum.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who is still the favourite at the bookies to succeed Theresa May as Tory leader (I know, I know), invited her to apply a “new coat of paint to her red lines” because he thought “they are starting to look a little pink”. She said, neutrally, “those principles remain”.
Corbyn mentioned universal credit once in his peroration. Perhaps it would have been better if he asked at least half his questions about that.