Just seven weeks till Jezza-geddon. The Labour leader seemed to anticipate his political extinction with a dead-sheep performance at PMQs. Poor Corbo. He’s never shaken off the air of Speakers’ Corner. He belongs outdoors, with a step-ladder and a bull-horn, ranting away at tourists and pigeons.
Today he was faced with a carefully drilled Tory militia eager to demonstrate their unity. It was impressive but dispiriting as well. Every preferment-seeker and red-box wannabe on the backbenches had been ordered to lace their query to the PM with extravagant praise of Tory economic genius. Up they popped, in wearying succession, the pliable Pippas, the malleable Marys, the robotic Richards, the pushover Pauls. It wasn’t a debate. It was a flash-mob of Duracell Bunnies.
Of these remote-controlled greasers, the worst was Philip Hollobone. His oil content is so high that BP should start drilling. Today his trick was to ask a closed question which gave him an excuse to quote a speech at length. Familiar phrases leapt out. ‘Ordinary working families’; those ‘with jobs’ but no ‘job security’; and people who are ‘just about managing’. And the penny dropped. He was regurgitating Mrs May’s mission statement last July as she tottered into Number 10 for the first time. Mr Hollobone had memorised a great chunk of this guff and he managed to get it all out, word perfect, before beseeching the Tory leader to bless his constituents with her presence during the election campaign and to repeat her ‘inspiring words’ to the grateful electors. This took political vassalage to a whole new level. Effectively he was asking Mrs May to agree to publicise her agreement with herself. I agree, said Mrs May.
And yet this in itself represents a U-turn. Because, as we now know, Mrs May disagrees with Mrs May. Her vow to spare us an election has vanished like a cheese puff in the path of a steam-roller. And it was Yvette Cooper who pointed this out most forcefully. She got up, calmly eyeballed the PM, and called her a liar. Mrs May had, according to Cooper, claimed that Parliament was ‘blocking Brexit’, and yet the triggering of Article 50 had been passed by both houses with sizeable majorities. ‘So that’s not true is it,’ said Cooper, with the sort of dead thud in her voice that Mrs May likes to use. She added that no one could believe a word the PM said.
For a moment the house witnessed a long-vanished spectre: a vision of the Labour movement that combines competence and nerve with centre-right pragmatism. The vanquished Blairite wing can’t have failed to spot it. And Cooper’s claim to the leadership must have benefited from this audacious raid on the PM’s trustworthiness. Cooper has a couple of advantages that have been overlooked. Her manner is warm and natural compared with frosty Mrs May. And she enjoys the sympathy of the nation after her tragic husband had a mid-life crisis on BBC1.