As their time draws near, doomed leaders like to have a final go on the train-set. Mrs May entered this state of self-absorbed hyperactivity about a week ago when she started to push and yank at all the levers of power in Downing Street. Honours were handed out. Jets were commissioned to zoom her between various provincial capitals. TV stations were ordered to suspend their Sunday schedules and to prepare for a stage-managed debate starring Mrs May. Her hope is to mobilise support for the chit of paper she recently received from Brussels in return for £39bn. Never was chit more dearly purchased.
At PMQs we got a foretaste of the TV spectacular in which Mrs May hopes to vaporise Jeremy Corbyn. But unforeseen circumstances have raced to Mr Corbyn’s assistance. A super-bright whizz-kid in his back-office today came up with the best set of questions the Labour leader has ever asked at PMQs. This sharp-witted wordsmith deserves a bonus. (And if Mr Corbyn himself originated today’s attack, why has he been so sparing in the use of his forensic skills up until now?)
He began by quoting the foreign secretary, who said on Sunday that Mrs May’s deal ‘mitigates most of the negative impacts’ of Brexit.
‘So,’ he asked mildly, ‘which of the negative impacts does it not mitigate?’
Laughter on all sides. Mrs May slipped into speak-your-weight mode and parroted a reply about protecting ‘jobs and opportunity’ while honouring the referendum result.
Mr Corbyn said that ‘a wish-list’ was the only appropriate label for her costly pact with Brussels. And he turned to her seemingly innocuous statement that hers was ‘the best possible deal’ and ‘the only possible deal.’
‘It’s not hard to be the best deal if it’s the only deal. And by definition that also makes it the worst deal.’
More hilarity. Mr Corbyn pointed out that her flagship phrase ‘frictionless trade’ had been summarily dislodged. Instead of ‘frictionless trade’, all we have is ‘friction’ and ‘less trade,’ he said.
Douglas Ross, a Scottish Conservative, asked Mrs May what guarantees she could offer to trawlermen during the trade talks. An astonishingly emollient question. Rather than demand a specific promise, he expressed the vague hope that some sort of air-fairy pledge might be floated his way.
Mrs May’s reply was puzzling. She mentioned the UK’s ‘independent’ status in future, and then she talked of negotiating ‘access to our waters’ and said she wanted ‘our fishing communities [to] get a better share.’ Well hang on. Whose flipping fish are these? Ours or theirs? Negotiating access to an asset implies that the asset belongs to an alien authority. Last week I bought a goldfish but I’m not obliged to ask the pet-shop owner for permission to watch it glide and weave in relaxing circles around the bowl.
It was notable that Mr Ross praised the PM’s ‘work ethic and determination’ during the negotiations. Clearly the poor man’s been nobbled by the Number 10 goon-squad. The corridors of Westminster are teeming with May-bot zombies urging Conservative members to consider the PM’s high moral character and profound sense of duty as she signs off on a Juncker-led diktat. This is like asking a wrongly-convicted prisoner to praise the marksmanship of the firing-squad.
Next she sets off on the Scottish leg of her ‘Deafness to Criticism’ tour. Since most of Scotland voted Remain, as did Mrs May, she’ll find herself among friends up there.
Don’t hurry back, prime minister.