In the Prime Minister’s statement to the House, Theresa May did her best to insist that despite an impasse in the Brexit negotiations it was business as normal. However, for all May’s claims that the differences between the UK and the EU were solvable, the hostile questions that followed from MPs showed just how hard it would be to get any deal through Parliament.
Jeremy Corbyn’s attempts to say that the government’s ‘Groundhog Day’ Brexit plans would fail Labour’s six Brexit tests were met with laughter and derision. The Leader of the Opposition’s shouty performance gave the beleaguered Prime Minister little reason for worry. However, the questions from the backbenchers did. The Prime Minister found herself under siege from all sides as Labour MPs, Tory Remainers and Tory Brexiteers all joined forces to criticise the current state of play.
Iain Duncan Smith was left visibly disappointed when May dodged his question asking by what means the UK could choose to leave a temporary customs backstop. After May said the government believed the new arrangement would be ready by December 2021, Boris Johnson popped up to ask the Prime Minister to confirm that the backstop would end in 2021. She declined. Arch-Brexiteer Bill Cash went further than his comrades – accusing the Prime Minister of letting Britain be ‘dictated to by the EU’ and warning that it will lead to a ‘humiliating conclusion’. Other Brexiteers asked why the UK was planning to hand over billions of pounds when the EU was offering so little in return.
On the Remain side, Amber Rudd asked May to think of the 48pc who voted Remain rather than just the 52pc who voted to Leave. Justine Greening did her best to sow seeds of discontent among the Brexiteers. The Tory MP – who once upon a time spoke warmly about Chequers – asked May whether she accepted that the common rulebook on standards that No 10 proposed was the worst of both worlds. Greening was one of a number of MPs – including Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston Labour’s Chris Leslie – who used their questions to call for a ‘People’s Vote’ arguing that a second referendum was the answer. May made clear she would not support this – though did say that if ‘no deal’ was the outcome ‘then actually that would come back to this House and then we would see what position this House would take in the circumstances’.
As for the DUP, Nigel Dodds reiterated his party’s concern at the current backstop and whether Northern Ireland would be treated differently from the rest of the UK. He asked May for specific assurances that this would not be the case, those were not all forthcoming but she did have warm words for him.
Although the Prime Minister batted away a lot of the questions with some success, the widespread anger and dissatisfaction on all sides of the House shows how difficult it will be to pass any deal – even if the EU/UK negotiators eventually manage to agree.