PMQs understudies shine as MPs suffer collective brain fade

John Crace

With Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn in Belfast for the funeral of Lyra McKee, prime minister’s questions was left in the more-than-capable hands of their regular understudies. And for the most part May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, and the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, were heard in near silence.

Partly as a mark of respect following the terror attacks in Sri Lanka and the shooting of McKee, and partly because it was such a treat to hear two articulate politicians, who actually made an effort to engage with one another’s arguments. But mainly because parliament is in the middle of a collective brain fade. MPs are vaguely aware there is a national crisis but have no real idea how to resolve it. So they just sit around taking industrial quantities of drugs and staring at the ceiling while grinning sheepishly.

After both deputies had condemned the violence – Lidington would have made a good vicar – Thornberry turned her attention to Brexit and the Northern Ireland backstop. Surely it must be clear that the only way to avoid to avoid a hard border was a permanent customs union: after all, hadn’t the cabinet secretary himself proposed just that a couple of years previously?

Lidington blushed. One of the downsides of the PMQs gig is having to defend the record of a leader with whom you disagree and believe to be second-rate. But he is nothing if not polite, so he chose to skirt around the customs union – careless talk costs lives – and instead concentrated on possible alternative border arrangements, the by-now-legendary Malthouse compromise, of which, for the purposes of this current 45 minutes, he was officially a fan.

Funny you should mention that, Thornberry replied, because there had been a leaked Home Office report which found that not only was there no budget for any hi-tech border infrastructure, there was no chance of anything like that even existing before 2030 at the earliest. So if the government wanted to turn the Northern Ireland border into a smugglers’ free-for-all for the next 10 years then go right ahead.

This report wasn’t a proper report, even though it was true, because it was a leaked report, Lidington stammered. At times like this it can be a disadvantage to be emotionally intelligent as people can always tell when you’re lying. He pressed on regardless. The government had spent at least £20m on failing to develop any new border technology and he was confident that if the government was to spend more money it would carry on failing to come up with any workable solutions.

But he very much hoped that one day the UK would be able to monetise its investment by selling its non-existent technology to some other poor sucker. After all, the less you could see, the more effective the solution. Quantum physics. So charging someone for nothing whatsoever would turn the UK into a global leader in invisible earnings.

Thornberry’s voice lowered several notes for her coup de grace. Perhaps it was about time the government started taking the cross-party talks a little more seriously. Sure everyone knew they were bound to fail and that no one had a clue what to do next, but the Tories’ negotiating team could at least go through the motions of behaving like grownups. Quite right, Lidington said. A compromise had to be found. And it would be Labour that would have to give way. He has yet to get the hang of give and take.

Standing in for Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Kirsty Blackman echoed the words of the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg by asking what more the government intended to do to reduce carbon emissions. Lidington adopted his hurt face.

Much as he admired the sentiments of the environmental campaigner, couldn’t we all just be a little kinder to one another by congratulating ourselves on what we had already achieved? Last month he had traded in his diesel car for a hybrid and only that morning he had put some old vegetables in the compost bin to offset the prime minister’s air miles to Northern Ireland. If only everyone could also do their bit then the planet would be saved by 2376. It was just a shame we’d all have choked to death long before that.

For the rest of the session, Lidington was a model of sincerity as he sought to reassure the Commons that the government had no immediate plans to do anything. After all, that would suggest there was someone in charge. As he spoke, people began to wander off and by the end the chamber was barely a third full. Not that it mattered. Parliament has long since cast itself adrift. Most MPs are just stoned pieces of space junk. Ground control to Major Tom. There’s something wrong.