There is something horrible and unnatural about seeing Theresa May in trouble. Her aloof and grandmotherly face becomes a canvas on which all kinds of dreadful emotions are drawn. It’s almost too much to watch, really, it’s like seeing Miss Marple on a shoplifting charge. She arrived early at PMQs with a gravestone pallor. It was the same grimace she wore on election night when she realised she’d blown her majority. Lips tightly pursed. Small eyes held in a rigid squint. Fear and remorse etched in every powdered wrinkle. She sipped at her water and fussed with a Kleenex. Then she hunched in her seat, neither resting against the leather back nor leaning fully forward. The posture of the murderer awaiting sentence.
The first question came from Brexiteer, Andrea Jenkyns.
‘At what point did “Brexit means Brexit” become “Brexit means Remain”?’
May stood up, amid the catcalls, and her broken spirit seemed to heal itself instantly.
‘At no point,’ she said. And she spoke airily about ‘the positives of Brexit.’
Corbyn – one of the weakest performers in this or any parliament – had a chance today of doing fatal damage to the PM. He failed. He attacked on the wrong point. And he attacked in the wrong way. He asked about the Electoral Commission’s finding that Vote Leave broke electoral rules. And he deliberately arranged his syntax to suggest that Tory Brexiteers had acted criminally.
‘Will she guarantee that cabinet members will co-operate fully with the police?’
This allowed May to side-step politics and invoke the constitution. She asked him sternly ‘to withdraw’. He declined. She asked again. He refused. Two questions down and he hadn’t even found the main target – her incompetence – let alone aimed at it.
May’s third answer was a carefully-rehearsed proof of her claim that the bills passed this week are identical to the Chequers deal.
‘This will be interesting,’ heckled Dawn Butler. May echoed her words.
‘This will be interesting’.
And it was interesting, to some onlookers, that Dawn Butler had completed a sentence without swearing. At the anti-Trump demo last Friday she started her address in Parliament Square with this Periclean utterance. ‘I write my own speeches so I can say what the fuck I like.’
May’s long and detailed answer left Corbyn a bit stuck so he asked her again why Chequers had been abandoned. Another easy question. May repeated that Chequers was now enshrined in UK law. And she accused him of not listening to her answers. She ended by comparing their actions last week. While he was at the anti-Trump vanity-march, she was busy helping the American president secure the future of Nato.
The idea that Trump cares about the future of Nato provoked general hilarity. Everyone roared. Tom Watson threw back his head like a seal swallowing a salmon. Even furtive Sajid Javid managed a bashful titter.
The newly self-demoted David Davis asked a tactical question about publishing a draft trade-deal in the event of a clean-break Brexit. And May did something extraordinary. She broke her Brussels duck. She actually registered a score against the EU. Using diplomatic language she accused their negotiators of telling lies in the hope that our team has no knowledge of deals struck by Brussels elsewhere.
‘They will say, “x can’t be done”, only for us to say, “x has been done”’.
In order words, they cheat.
Astonishing. The author of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has started to believe in her own doctrine.