Although staffers in No 10 have been busy this week celebrating Theresa May making it to Christmas, the Prime Minister had to first make it through an appearance in front of the Liaison Committee this afternoon. Summoned to give evidence on everything from Brexit and the intricacies of alignment to the now defunct social mobility commission and sexual harassment, May found herself in a very different position to the one she was in when she last appeared before the committee a year ago.
With no Conservative majority and a divided party behind her, May was reminded of her problems by the very presence of the new chair of the committee Sarah Wollaston. The Conservative backbencher was one of the 11 Tory MPs to rebel last week and cause a government defeat on Dominic Grieve’s meaningful vote amendment. Despite this, Wollaston could not be described as the most hostile member of the committee when it came to questioning May.
That honour was saved for Yvette Cooper. The Home Affairs select committee chair attempted to go for May’s jugular when she pressed her on the terms of the ‘meaningful vote’ MPs secured last week on the final Brexit deal. Cooper pressed May repeatedly on whether MPs will vote on Britain’s exit bill before ratification. However, May would only say there would be a vote and that she would like that vote to be a meaningful one. On the Brexiteer side, Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the public administration committee, asked May whether she would consider Oliver Letwin’s proposal to have a very senior cabinet minister to take charge of Brexit planning across Whitehall. Her response – ever illuminating – was that a structure is in place already.
Away from Brexit, May – when asked what she was doing to tackle sexual harassment in Westminster – said there was no silver bullet to deal with the crisis. On social mobility, the Prime Minister said she hoped to use the opportunity provided by Alan Milburn’s departure to refresh it. The most interesting answer in the session came when Angus MacNeil brought up the issue of independence – asking May if she had ‘any view’ on ‘political prisoners’ in Spain. Barely managing to hide her disdain, May responded that she assumed he was making ‘reference to the fact the Spanish government is making sure the constitution and the rule of law is applied.’
By the end of the session, MPs were so keen for some policy that Frank Field and Rachel Reeves were volunteering to draw up bills for the Prime Minister. Overall May’s outing stood out more for what she didn’t say than what she did. It was a vaguely competent if at times dull performance. Perhaps things haven’t changed so much after all.