Brexit

PMQs: Leaders trying to pretend Brexit farce isn’t happening

BY Finn McRedmond   /  15 May 2019

As Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn announced last night that they would continue cross-party negotiations in search of a route out of the Brexit impasse, they seem to have struck a mutual agreement to not mention Brexit to one another in PMQs ever again.

It’s been weeks since Brexit was the topic of their weekly head to head in the Commons. By pretending in public it’s basically not happening perhaps they’re hoping that the electorate will forget too. Unlikely.

As the European elections – which were never supposed to happen – approach next week, the Brexit Party are storming ahead in the polls and the Tories face nothing short of annihilation. Current polling suggests that the two main parties combined are about to secure less than half the votes of the Brexit Party.

Labour can probably blame Tories for not pulling their weight in that regard. Labour is still in with a chance of being the second party in these elections. And if the Brexit Party are concerned about anyone it is Labour – specifically in the Labour voting heartlands in the North of England. “A traditional voting pattern is still a traditional voting pattern,” a Brexit Party strategist told me last week.

Instead of discussing Brexit, May and Corbyn decided to engage in their favourite pastime – rattling off unrelated stats to each other about employment figures, austerity, wages. They could very well have been in separate universes.

Corbyn went with a familiar line of attack – nine hedge fund tycoons had donated millions to the Tories, executives are paid hundreds times more than their employees, the Tories opposed the minimum wage. Is the Tory party one for the many, or for the few?

May responded with the same lines we’ve heard before. The best way to ensure a high standard of living is to get people into work, the top 1% paid more in income tax now than they did under Labour, Labour wants to bring everyone down while the Tories want to bring everyone up.

Either side’s approach may have worked, had we not heard it all before. May had a rare gotcha moment however, when she pointed out the leader of the opposition’s hypocrisy:

“The way [Corbyn] talks you would think inequality started in 2010. Who was it who said of the last Labour government they ensured that the gap between the richest and the poorest in our society became very much bigger … The words of the right honourable gentleman attacking his own government.”

On the unmentionable, Brexit, Labour’s stance has been incoherent, inconsistent, practically unknowable, in recent months. Corbyn seems to have alighted on one position: Labour wants a customs union compromise out of these talks. Unfortunately for May, her party does not. And a letter yesterday sent to her by many of her former cabinet colleagues make this very clear: she will probably lose more votes from her own party via compromising in this vein than votes she will pick up from Labour.

Rock meet hard place. Hard place, rock.

The impasse is not just bad news for the Tories, however. Change UK The Independent Group (snappy, isn’t it?) may have stage-managed the worst campaign launch in history. From changing their name as often as May has to reshuffle her cabinet, choosing a logo that looks more like a supermarket barcode than the symbol of an ambitious new liberal movement, and travelling around in an election bus that looks as though it was designed by a labrador using Microsoft Word, they are deservedly trailing in the polls.

And, someone’s irony metre appears to have broken today, as Chukka Umuna – a luminary of this well-oiled campaign machine, and defector of Labour – criticised the new party’s leading Scottish candidate for defecting to Lib Dems ahead of the elections next week. David Macdonald urged pro-Remain voters to back the Lib Dems in these elections, saying Change UK “don’t stand much of a chance” of winning seats on 23 May.

Umunna said it was “disappointing” that Mr Macdonald “let down his fellow candidates.” Stones, glass houses, etc.

Back in the chamber the Tories were floundering. Their benches were half empty, and there were no rowdy cheers of support for their doomed leader.

Conservative Brexiteer Peter Bone produced a letter from his constituents, calling on May to resign before next week’s elections. Her deal is “worse than staying in the European Union” and they want out with a no-deal Brexit, he said.

Astoundingly, or perhaps not, a call from one of her own MPs suggesting her resignation was met with May repeating the well-worn line that she “wants to deliver Brexit.” It was hard to shake the impression that she doesn’t seem to care all that much anymore. Drift is the defining characteristic.

May is working out her notice, a Tory leadership race is on the horizon, and the Commons is doing next to nothing. Remember a few weeks ago, when Donald Tusk told Britain not to waste the time given to it by the Brexit extension?