PMQs verdict: Corbyn finally, but feebly, tackles May on Brexit

Andrew Sparrow

Key points

A more than usually noisy PMQs saw Jeremy Corbyn focus his questions on Brexit and the detail – or lack of it – of the government’s plan for it.

He started by saying David Davis promised in his Brexit speech on Tuesday that Britain would not turn into a “Mad Max-style dystopia”, before asking whether Theresa May couldn’t set the bar a bit higher than that? May says the only fiction around is from Labour, which cannot decide on its own Brexit policy.

Corbyn pressed on with the Davis speech – pointing out that the Brexit secretary said he did not want to deregulate. So why did his own department say there could be opportunities from deregulation on issues such as the environment? May rattles through a list of what she wants from Brexit but does not answer the question.

Corbyn said Boris Johnson briefed in December that the working-time directive would be scrapped. He added that May used to say she wanted tariff-free access to the EU. Now it is access “as tariff-free as possible”.

May said she wanted to enhance workers’ rights, not just protect them, listing as Conservative achievements the Matthew Taylor report into working practices, action on zero-hours contracts and workers’ voices on company boards. But Corbyn said if May had read Wednesday’s Telegraph, she would see that 62 Tories wanted to deregulate.

Corbyn moved on to fears of a hard border in Northern Ireland, asking how May hoped to avoid this. May said the government explained that in a paper published last year.

Corbyn said Johnson’s speech mentioned stag parties, carrots and a plague of boils but not Ireland. He added that we didn’t know from the government’s “road to Brexit” speeches where it was going, suggesting ministers were actually on a road to nowhere.

May pointed out that Corbyn was meant to ask a question. She said she set out in a speech last week that she was unconditionally committed to the security of Europe. Somewhat incongruously she added: “He normally asks me to sign a blank cheque – and I know he likes Czechs ...” [whatever came next was obscured by the cheers/groans].

Verdict

Corbyn receives a lot of criticism for his habit of avoiding Brexit at PMQs, but today’s exchanges illustrated vividly why he is so reluctant to attack May on this topic. He devoted all six of his questions to the subject but made no real headway.

Worse, he achieved the rare feat of allowing May to sound half-authoritative on an issue on which her party is deeply split. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with Corbyn’s questions. They were nicely phrased (one of them sounded a bit like a lift from my blog intro yesterday) and made good points. But Brexit is an issue where the detail is crucial, and today Corbyn’s unwillingness to ask forensic follow-up questions was a serious weakness. (Can you imagine what the late Robin Cook would have been like, tearing apart the government’s Brexit stategy from the dispatch box? After 15 minutes, it would have been in tatters.)

More tellingly, Corbyn just did not sound very engaged by any of this. When he talks about housing, or the NHS, or social justice, his passion is evident. But today he came across as someone merely going through the motions, not just uninterested (a bit bored by it all), but disinterested (neutral on the key soft/hard divide) too.

Memorable lines

He normally asks me to sign a blank cheque – and I know he likes Czechs …

May shoehorning in a dig about recent claims Corbyn met a Czechoslovakian spy in London.

This government is not on the road to Brexit, it is on the road to nowhere.

Corbyn on lack of details about the government’s negotiating position on Brexit.