PMQs began with tributes to the late Paddy Ashdown. The philandering man-of-action was the closest thing the Liberal Democrats ever got to James Bond. And though he was often ridiculed by MPs as a self-important windbag, today they hailed him as one of the greats. In this respect the House truly reflected the people. Death brings out the hypocrite in all of us.
May offered a few respectful words. The Lib Dems were represented by the weirdly pompous Sir Edward Davey whose knighthood has swollen his head without affecting the capacity of his brain. At least his tribute seemed genuinely heartfelt. The most sincere effort came from Jeremy Corbyn. ‘He was elected at the same time as me, in 1983,’ said Corbyn, recalling his arrival in parliament as if it were the highlight of Lord Ashdown’s career. ‘He and I spent a lot of evenings voting against what the Thatcher Tory government [sic] was doing at the time.’
A fascinating glimpse into Corbyn’s narcissus complex.
In the debate, he accused May of using no deal to ‘blackmail MPs’ into supporting her ‘hopelessly unpopular’ withdrawal agreement. He recalled her pre-Christmas promise to secure ‘written assurances’ from Brussels: ‘Will the changes she’s looking for be made legally binding in the Withdrawal Agreement?’
May: ‘Can I say to the Right Honourable Gentlemen, we, … as I have said earlier in my remarks, and I have said previously, there are three elements that we are looking at …’
She clodded and clumped her way over many yards of this piffle until she reached a non-conclusion.
‘… we will be looking to ensure that we can provide the assurance that this House needs in relation to the question that has been at the forefront of members’ minds.’
Corbyn: I didn’t hear the words ‘legal changes to the document’.
Nor did anyone. He’d nailed her.
Huw Merriman made an amusing bid to become teacher’s pet. Wearing a large pink-faced grin he announced that he would endorse May’s deal. He then tried to line himself up as Brexit secretary-in-waiting. He suggested that EU citizens should not be charged for residency permits after we leave the EU. It didn’t occur to him to ask the EU to reciprocate. Of course it didn’t. Giving stuff to Brussels without getting anything in return is the route to the top in May’s government.
Another way to catch the PM’s eye is to lobby for civil disorder. Ken Clarke tried to spark off nationwide riots by calling for Article 50 to be ‘revoked’. Outraged catcalls drowned out his next sentence but he appeared to say ‘it’s what the British people want.’ A mind-reader as well as a fire-starter. These are impressive additions to Clarke’s CV.
May oozed up to him. ‘My honourable and learned friend,’ she purred, with punctilious smarm in her reply. The suggestion that A50 might be scrapped – with the veiled threat of mass-criminality to follow – gives the whips further leverage over Tory Brexiteers.
Julian Lewis questioned May’s credibility with a deliberately bland enquiry. ‘She has assured this house on 74 occasions that we will be leaving the EU on 29th March.’ Is there any question of ‘delaying that date,’ he asked.
‘I’m happy to repeat that we will be leaving on 29th March,’ parroted the PM.
A very alarming exchange. Lewis sent a clear message that the prime minister’s previous 74 statements about this are worthless.
He’s right. She ruled out a snap election and then called a snap election. She has the high-handed manner of an Edwardian political hostess, and she treats the truth like an unlettered skivvy to be hired or dismissed according to the needs of the day.