Bad 24 hours for Mrs May. A last-minute Christmas shopping-trip to Europe yielded no bargains whatever, even though she had £39bn to splurge on an extension to her premiership. Back home she found a conspiracy of seditious Tories baying for her resignation.
The Queen of Narnia is a masochist. She finds punishment stimulating, and perhaps slightly addictive, so she showed up at PMQs looking calm and expectant. Her mood was buttressed by certainty. This evening her fate will be decided. All she has to lose is everything, but the result is out of her hands. This probably settled her nerves.
‘Brazen it out’, was her only tactic today. Asked what her shopping-trip had achieved, she blandly announced that the EU’s high lamas had been impressed by ‘the concerns and the strength of feeling in this house.’
Jeremy Corbyn started his attack by patronising her.
‘I’m delighted to see her back in her place after her little journeys.’
If he expected his party to erupt in scornful laughter he was disappointed. Then he lost his temper. And that suited Mrs May perfectly.
He raged and stamped about her ‘appalling behaviour' and the ‘chaos at the centre of her government. It was ‘totally unacceptable’.
Snarl after snarl poured out of him.
‘This house agreed a programme motion!’ he hollered. ‘And five days of debate!’. He yelled that she was ‘contemptuous of this parliament and this process.’
Today he needed to exude the quiet authority of a PM-in-waiting but he behaved like a nutjob cyclist attacking a lorry-driver after a near miss.
All the easier for Mrs May.
‘The vote has been deferred,’ she said, ‘and the date will be announced in the normal way.’
Matron soothing tempers at the orphanage.
While she was jetting through European airspace she seems to have indulged her talent for wordplay. The result was a pun about Labour’s shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner.
Mr Corbyn’s next U-turn, said Mrs May, would be defended by ‘The Inconstant Gardener’.
She threw her victim a flirtatious look.
Jeremy Corbyn stared back, his frowning face shifting slightly, like a donkey just waking up.
‘Someone will explain it to the leader of the opposition later,’ tinkled Mrs May.
Kenneth Clarke, whistling through his teeth, delivered an orotund paragraph of sub-Churchillian guff.
‘At a time of grave national crisis,’ he fluted, ‘on an issue which we all agree is vital to future generations …’ etc. He sounded like a fairy-tale emperor reassuring the peasantry over the wireless. ‘Nothing,’ he went on, ‘could be more unhelpful, irrelevant and irresponsible than a leadership contest.’
Another irrelevance dominated backbench questions. A ‘Final Say’ or a People’s Vote was floated by various MPs who appear not to understand the English term ‘democracy’. Nor are they attuned to their own absurdity. They dislike referendums and they call for another one immediately.
The day’s most striking speech went almost unnoticed. Ranil Jayawardena quoted a finding by the Royal College of Obstetricians that 75 per cent of infant deaths are avoidable. This means that every year hundreds of tiny white coffins are lowered into the ground because of bad equipment or lousy training. That’s a third world statistic. But MPs paid no attention because they were discussing which irrelevance was more irrelevant than all the other irrelevances.