Jeremy Corbyn is not a forensic Commons performer. He is uncomfortable adjusting his questions to take into account Theresa May’s responses. This limits his ability to pin May down. Today, he asked a question on a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. May emphasised that there wouldn’t be a customs border there. But Corbyn didn’t then pursue what kind of regulatory border there would be. The result was that May sustained no damage during their exchanges.
Once again, the lack of support in the chamber for May’s deal was striking. There were a couple of supportive questions from the Tory benches, but more hostile ones.
The most difficult question of the session came from George Freeman, May’s former policy chief. He cut to the chase and asked if the backstop meant that the UK could only diverge from EU rules if it was prepared to give teeth to a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. May talked about how the backstop was temporary and all that. But admitted that while it was in operation, the UK as a whole would have to follow EU rules to avoid the need for checks on GB to NI trade.
This answer will alarm many MPs. But it won’t be enough to assuage the DUP. Nigel Dodds asked May directly why the choice of whether to diverge from EU rules would not be Northern Ireland’s to take. He pointedly asked her who had deleted this section of the December joint report.
Earlier in the session, the DUP had ostentatiously nodded along with Corbyn’s questions on the Northern Ireland. It was another reminder of how bad relations now are between the Prime Minister and the 10 MPs who are meant to provide her with her Commons majority.