Prime Minister’s Questions: The key bits and the verdict
May 16, 2018
Theresa May went head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons. Here’s what happened.
The main clash was between the two leaders over Brexit and the current debate going on in the cabinet over which form of customs arrangement the UK wants with the EU after Brexit.
The Labour leader went straight in with a joke that Mrs May, amongst others, enjoyed.
He asked the PM that when she said she wanted “as little friction as possible… was she talking about EU trade or the next cabinet meeting?”
Mrs May replied that the government had a policy of leaving the customs union and ensuring that in doing so there was as frictionless trade as possible with the EU, no hard Northern Ireland border and also an independent trade policy. Then, referring to friction, she quoted shadow ministers who had backed a second EU referendum and asked Mr Corbyn to “put minds at rest” and rule out a second referendum.
Mr Corbyn ignored that and said that divisions in the cabinet meant there had been progress in Brexit negotiations for five months. He said that the PM’s trade goal had gone from “frictionless” to “as frictionless as possible”, and asked how much friction she was willing to accept. Mrs May replied that even as a member of the EU trade was not frictionless – presumably explaining why the wording of the goal had changed.
The two then clashed over business and the economy with Mr Corbyn listing companies including Airbus who have warned, he said, that uncertainty and the proposed Brexit solutions meant they may be moving jobs out of the UK. Mrs May hit back by attacking Labour’s record.
We then came to the crunch with Mr Corbyn saying that negotiating deadlines were approaching and “if the prime minister cannot negotiate a good deal for Britain why doesn’t she step aside and let Labour negotiate a comprehensive new customs union and living standards backed by trade unions and business in this country – step aside and make way for those who will.”
Mrs May said that her government had created more jobs and delivered on the Brexit talks so far. She accused Labour of broken promises and said “it is only the Conservative Party which can be trusted by the British people to deliver a Brexit that is in the interests of British people and to deliver opportunity for all in a Britain fit for the future”.
What else came up?
The session began with a welcome to two police officers who had tackled the killer of Labour MP Jo Cox two years ago. There was a rare Commons round of applause:
The SNP’s leader at Westminster Ian Blackford raised the issue of the EU Withdrawal Bill, claiming the government was out of touch on Brexit:
Here’s what the BBC’s Andrew Neil and Laura Kuenssberg made of it:
Here’s the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy’s take on it:
This was a marathon PMQs, finally juddering to a halt at 12:52. And Jeremy Corbyn continued hammering away at the government’s internal deadlock over the critical question of post-Brexit customs arrangements.
It’s just an impression, really, but something about the Labour leader’s tone and body language suggests that he is edging, more and more, toward a very “soft Brexit” policy. Maybe this is the inexorable logic of opposition, pushing Labour towards the policy most likely to damage the government and split the Conservatives. Some on his benches – arch-remainer Stephen Kinnock for one – want to waft him towards their favoured policy of keeping Britain inside the EEA, the European Economic Area.
Theresa May, as last week, stuck to her familiar formula about the trade arrangements she seeks, without giving much indication of how the government’s open dissention will be resolved. But perhaps she gave a hint that ministers recognise how much trouble they are in, in the Commons.
Challenged by Labour’s Karen Buck to provide an early vote on the EEA option, she suggested that the vote could come on a number of bills, and then name-checked one that has not yet been fed into Parliament, the promised Implementation and Withdrawal Bill, that will put the divorce deal into UK legislation.
What is interesting about that is that the EU Withdrawal Bill, due to clear the Lords today, would provide a much earlier opportunity for an EEA vote. And indeed lots of other awkward votes for the government. Peers have already inserted an EEA requirement into that Bill, and MPs will have to decide to accept or reject it.
There is a rumour that ministers are so concerned about a series of possible Commons defeats on this Bill that they might shelve it indefinitely, and maybe put parts of it into that promised Withdrawal and Implementation Bill in the autumn… at least kicking the can down the road for some months.
It underlines the government’s continuing problem that there does not appear to be a Commons majority for the PM’s version of Brexit. So a combination of Jeremy Corbyn and his pro-EU backbenchers gave the PM an uncomfortable interlude.
For the SNP, Ian Blackford opened another Brexit front, by highlighting the opposition to the government’s plans in the Scottish Parliament. But that was a predictable line of attack and Theresa May was prepared. Both sides put their line on the record.
And the PM also got in a pre-emptive concession on the Grenfell Tower issue – announcing new government funding in advance of the Labour Opposition Day debate this afternoon. A neat piece of choreography with backbencher Bob Blackman, aimed at taking some wind out of Labour’s sails this afternoon.
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