It looked exciting on paper. A massive defeat for the government. Their flagship policy not just sunk but blown to smithereens. And a Prime Minister facing a no-confidence motion for the first time since Sunny Jim Callaghan was unseated in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher. And yet PMQs lacked sparkle. The mood was footsore, hungover, whimpering with fatigue. A historic day felt entirely unhistoric. Everyone wanted a break.
May, her throat hoarse, looked knackered and bored, like Mick Jagger at the fag-end of a world tour. She gasped out some of her answers without grammatical ornaments. When Robert Goodwill sought her congratulations for a Scarborough firm that flogs fertiliser to China, she managed this:
‘Driving exports, driving investments, good for the north.’
But thank God for Jeremy Corbyn – a welcome point of certainty in these unpredictable times. As always, he was useless. He completely failed to exploit his advantage and he simply yelled at the PM for incompetence without analysing her inadequacies. And instead of building a case against her he huffed and flapped his way through a laundry-list of grievances: soaring crime, lousy schools, not enough cops, too many food banks, cuts everywhere, cuts, cuts, snarl, snarl.
As a statesman he’s a disappointment. But this was a superb imitation of a department store Santa being dismissed for inappropriate behaviour in the grotto. His tut-tut list included the revelation that four million Brits now languish in destitution. (His reference was to those in ‘in-work poverty’). This is the finding of a UN gad-about hired to tour the world and accuse rich countries of abusing their citizens by giving them free healthcare, dentistry and schooling. Great job for the UN guy. Lots of travel. Comfy hotels. Easy conclusions. And guaranteed acclaim from rich poverty activists like Jeremy Corbyn and the fatcat charity bosses.
Many backbenchers suggested ways out of the impasse. Kenneth Clarke repeated last week’s effort and honked about suspending Article 50. He was followed by the chorus of minnows in Remain Corner led by Nicky Morgan and Dr Sarah Wollaston. The good doctor wants to heal the body-politic with a repeat referendum.
So does Ian Blackford of the SNP who helpfully told us what the ballot paper should say. Two options: Remain or May’s Deal. Such a short memory! Remain was rejected in 2016 by the voters. May’s Deal was trounced by parliament last night. And Blackford didn’t tell us on what date the result of the second referendum would be effaced by those clamouring for Referendum Three.
Several backbenchers predicted that the EU would refuse to alter the Withdrawal Agreement. Well, no wonder. A travelling college of Brexit-cancellers has been commuting to and from Brussels for many months. The leading masterminds – Blair, Grieve, Soubry and Umunna – offer private tuition to Euro-wonks in how best to kill democracy by refusing the government’s requests and by jamming their heels into the mud to drain Brexit of energy.
It may pay off. Even if Britain escapes on WTO terms there are other rewards.
It’s noticeable that the busiest Brexit saboteurs are eligible for the highest honours. Sir Nick Clegg, Sir Craig Oliver and Sir Vince Cable may soon be joined by Dame Anna and Sir Chuka.