Jeremy Corbyn scolded a Tory MP during his opening speech in the Commons debate on Theresa May’s Brexit Plan B, telling the backbencher that his intervention hadn’t added anything to the seriousness of the occasion. How odd, then, that the way the Labour leader conducted himself throughout his speech also ended up fitting that criticism perfectly.
The Labour leader’s response was dominated not by a careful critique of the Prime Minister’s strategy for getting a new Brexit deal agreed with European leaders and then accepted by the Commons, but by his petty refusal to take an intervention from a backbencher on his own side. Angela Smith, who has long been openly hostile to Corbyn, repeatedly stood up to ask him to give way. Corbyn repeatedly ignored her. To begin with, it appeared as though Corbyn was refusing to take any interventions at all. Then, it seemed as though he couldn’t hear the requests from Labour MPs behind him, focusing only on queries from Conservative MPs, including Theresa May. But as his speech rambled on, it became very obvious that Corbyn was pointedly ignoring Smith.
Tory MPs seized on this, turning the debate into a row about whether Corbyn was being petty in ignoring Smith. A series of points of orders and interventions appealed to the Labour leader to let Smith speak. Of course, the Tory efforts looked totally synthetic, but they had the effect of refocusing attention away from May’s mess. Smith told me afterwards that she wanted to ask ‘about when we are going to move to the party’s policy of calling for a People’s Vote’. Corbyn will have guessed this, and clearly didn’t want to make his contribution to the debate about Labour’s policy problems, or to highlight the divisions within the party. But in blocking Smith’s question, he did just that anyway. He also made himself look like a teenager who had decided they weren’t speaking to someone in their class.
This behaviour undermined what Corbyn did have to offer to the Chamber (admittedly not that much). He confirmed that the Labour frontbench would try to shorten the extension of Article 50 in Yvette Cooper’s amendment from nine months to three months, something Cooper accepted in her own intervention and offered to meet the Prime Minister if she backed that amendment. But his behaviour in the debate today will have made that offer look rather pointless, given Corbyn is prepared to make himself look quite as petty as he did today.