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On one side of the chamber there is the sheer insanity and complexity of the government’s Brexit policy. May’s announcement yesterday that she will allow MPs to vote on extending Article 50 can really be understood as nothing more than driving MPs closer to a cliff edge, forced to decide between her deal or a chaotic no deal Brexit.
On the other side of the chamber things have somehow contrived to be worse – the Labour party is in moral turmoil over its handling of anti-Semitism and Jeremy Corbyn is doing what he can to hold together a party that is falling apart.
It was in this context that May and Corbyn kicked off what might have been the worst PMQs in the history of the genre. Corbyn began proceedings by pointing out the latest Bank of England figures. They show economic growth this year will be the lowest in a decade. May retaliated by pointing out that growth projections for the UK are still higher than for Germany. Corbyn says the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer. May retaliates by pointing out income inequality is lower than it was under Labour. You can see where this is going.
Were it not for the fact that PMQs is fortunately time-limited and overseen by the speaker, it would be entirely reasonable to assume this exchange has the legs to go on ad infinitum. Which, surprisingly enough, would probably be just as good a use of both the prime minister’s and the leader of the opposition’s time.
Corbyn today has been busy in demonstrating the art of doing the bare minimum. Chris Williamson MP had come under fire again for alleged anti-Semitism. Speaking at a Momentum meeting this week about the party’s issues with anti-Semitism, he said: “I’ve got to say I think our party’s response has been partly responsible for that. Because, in my opinion, we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic.”
Williamson has since been forced to apologise, for saying Labour has been too apologetic. His apology was probably hovering around medium apologetic – these things are all a balancing act, after all. While Theresa May called on Corbyn to suspend Williamson from the party, Corbyn looked on both indignant and reluctant. Deputy leader Tom Watson and former leader Ed Miliband, however, both called for the suspension of the MP for Derbyshire North.
Labour responded that Williamson will be investigated and not suspended, just hours before a letter co-signed by 38 Labour MPs demanding Williamson’s suspension was made public. Its signatures included party heavyweights such as Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman, Dan Jarvis, and Owen Smith. Since then, Chris Williamson has been suspended pending investigation.
This scuffle over how to handle Williamson did a pretty good job at demonstrating why the likes of Luciana Berger felt they had to defect to The Independence Group in the first place. While the party’s reasons for his suspension cites a recent pattern in his behaviour, it really is no secret that he has been behaving like this for years. This decision is best understood in the context of the nine Labour defectors – were it not for the very real possibility that Labour could lose even more of its MPs (they are now 16 down from 2017) it is unclear whether Corbyn would felt the need to take any action at all.
But all the while Labour is in near moral ruin, The Independence Group appear to be having a nice time getting along as best buds (taking bets on how long that will last). On Monday a photo of the 11 Tiggers having a meal at Nandos – the restaurant you go to when you want to look like you’re in touch with the common man when you are, in fact, not at all in touch with the common man – did the rounds on social media.
It is easy to poke fun at the nascent political party and its motley crew, but it seems the tide is turning when it comes to anti-Semitism in the Labour party. While Corbyn could have and should have done a lot more in his handling of Chris Williamson today, thanks to the Tiggers the Labour party is making its first moves against its endemic anti-Semitism. Thanks to them – something might have changed.