The Brexit kerfuffle has been so much fun that she wants three more months of it. That was the PM’s message to parliament today. At the start of this rowdy session some members seem to think they could terminate May’s career live on TV. Pete Wishart, the first member called, laid into her mishandling of Brexit and flung three blunt syllables at her, ‘weak, weak, weak.’
This struck the wrong note. Too brutal. And rather cheap to use a phrase coined by Tony Blair to undermine John Major.
There was a hint that the PM wishes to retain control of her destiny. She laid special emphasis on her official rank when she said, ‘as prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30th June.’ Is that a promise to resign? Good news for May-bashers. Order the fizz and send out the party invites. The trouble is that her political methods are far from straightforward. She treats promises like pancakes. Always worth flipping over.
She discovered her gift for dissembling while she was in Downing Street and she knows that a talented fibber always ignores a difficult question and instead answers an easy one. When Bill Cash asked her why Britain should not quit the EU in nine days time, ‘as parliament has enacted,’ she came over all helpless and tinkly. ‘What I have done today is to ask for a short extension till the end of June.’ She sounded like the Head Girl ordering extra fruit juice for the netball team. In reality this may be the most precipitate climbdown in parliament’s history. On 108 occasions she has ruled out any delay to Brexit, as Peter Bone reminded her. He called today’s letter to Donald Tusk ‘betrayal’, and he asked her to tear it up. Deliberately breaking protocol to intensify his effect, he spoke to her directly.
‘Prime minister it is down to you. History will judge you.’
Bone is usually a source of merriment at PMQs but his chilly tone sounded ominous.
Blairite voices pulled the PM in the opposite direction. Ed Miliband made a short, vigorous speech describing her as ‘the roadblock’ that prevented agreement. Yvette Cooper worked herself into a tearful lather on behalf of her beloved EU. ‘I beg you,’ she whimpered,’ in the interests of the nation, think again.’
Anna Eagle urged the PM to strike a deal that enjoys ‘the support of majority in parliament.’ A deal to Remain, in other words. ‘Stop kowtowing to Brextremists’, she said, referring to the handful of MPs who want to honour the referendum and get Brussels out of British politics.
Anna Soubry made history and became the first member of the TIGs to be called at PMQs. Her name was greeted by a collective gasp of pain, as if parliament had stubbed its toe.
She quoted David Lidington who last week described any delay to Brexit as ‘downright reckless.’ It seems that yesterday’s recklessness has become today’s masterstroke. Throughout the session, Mrs May argued for her postponement as if it were a political triumph which historians will one day speak of with awe and wonder.
A price may be demanded. Natalie Loiseau, France’s Europe minister, has asked for a specific ‘purpose or initiative’ as a pre-condition of extending A50. She means a People’s Vote, of course. And that would fit in perfectly with the EU’s democratic principles. Britain can leave the EU once it holds another referendum neutralising its decision to leave the EU.