Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Nobody is yet saying “Send for Corbyn”

But the Prime Minister had to proceed with caution in the No Confidence debate, in order to arouse no suspicion that she might seek moderate Labour votes.

Jeremy Corbyn is a better Leader of the Opposition than he was, but still does not sound like a Prime Minister in waiting. As he opened the No Confidence debate, he took the precaution of taking few interventions from other MPs.

But those interventions were still sufficient to demonstrate the utter nullity of his European policy. When Alistair Carmichael asked if Labour supports a second referendum, Corbyn could only say that “all options are on the table”.

He said the Prime Minister should keep all options on the table too, but proceeded to contradict himself by urging her to “rule out No Deal”.

Corbyn went on to allow an intervention from Anna Soubry (Con, Broxtowe). She pointed out that the Conservatives are six points ahead in the opinion polls, and wondered whether this could be because “he’s the most hopeless Leader of the Opposition we’ve ever had”.

Corbyn could have replied that her remark did not exactly constitute a declaration of confidence in the Prime Minister. He instead insisted, less ambitiously, that he looked forward to testing public opinion in a general election. But he admitted that many people think we have had quite enough elections and referendums in recent years to be going on with.

And he did not even sound very enthusiastic himself about the idea of an election. The longer he spoke, the less sense one had that he was convincing himself, let alone anyone else.

“Send for Corbyn” is not yet a message that leaps to people’s lips. In that sense, the whole occasion sounded rather bogus, an obligatory ritual rather than a genuine attempt to throw out the Government.

“Stick with May” is still a message the Tory benches are prepared to heed. But the Father of the House, Ken Clarke, had already told her at Prime Minister’s Questions, from his bench a few yards behind her: “She must now modify her red lines…and find a cross-party majority.”

Clarke nodded quietly when Angela Eagle and Yvette Cooper made the same point from the Labour benches.

This was difficult territory for the Prime Minister. She had to show she is prepared to listen to reasonable suggestions from across the House about Brexit, without making her own Eurosceptics fear she is about to outflank them by forming an alliance with Labour moderates.

Liam Byrne (Lab, Birmingham Hodge Hill) said she was imprisoned in “a cage of red lions”, which sounded a dangerous place to be, but it turned out that he had said “a cage of red lines”, which sounded a bit less bad.

May naturally flung at him the famous note he left in 2010 for his successor as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, “I’m afraid there is no money left.”

Byrne said in his own defence, “I was naive to honour a Treasury tradition that went back to Churchill.” By now, the heat was clearly off May. But it was also clear that no one, including herself, yet knows how to devise a Brexit policy which can command a Commons majority.

 

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Tory MPs fear Bercow is betraying Brexit

The anger expressed on the Conservative benches reflected the anger felt in many a humble home.

Tory MPs came back from Christmas feeling ready to be cross. One could see it in their grumpy faces as they listened to Theresa May, but it was the Speaker, John Bercow, who fanned their anger into a roaring conflagration which took an hour to subside.

It is worth dwelling for a moment on May herself. The Prime Minister looks more and more like a poker player who has been dealt some lousy cards and cannot maintain the pretence that she is feeling confident.

When Jeremy Corbyn asked her if any changes she obtains in Brussels will “be made to the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement itself”, there was a slight tremor in her voice as she began her reply.

And when he remarked that he didn’t hear the words “legal changes to the document” from the Prime Minister, her voice rose as she attempted to retort: “I’ve made it clear to the Honourable Gentleman…”

Nor did those beside and behind her look any more sure of themselves. They too were pale and gloomy. Even Boris Johnson, sitting with his arms folded at the far end of the Chamber, looked pale and gloomy, and thinner than he was.

If Corbyn had any sense, he would have gone on asking, with increasing brevity, about legal changes to the document, for the subject plainly rattled her. But he and his handlers are under the illusion that they should try to ask a number of different questions, instead of exposing the nullity of her answers by pressing again and again on her weakest point.

Her performance did nothing to improve the morale of Tory MPs, but instead reminded them that she is no use as a saleswoman. The more she told MPs the answer is to vote for her deal, the less enamoured of her deal the House felt.

Ken Clarke, the Father of the House, irritated his Tory colleagues by telling May she “has to be flexible on some things”, and asking her to consider delaying or revoking Article 50. That produced angry cries of “No”.

As soon as PMQs ended, Tory Eurosceptics directed a stream of furious points of order at the Speaker for selecting Dominic Grieve’s amendment while rejecting theirs. Mark Francois was beside himself with rage as he accused Bercow of overturning a motion of the House.

Clarke counter-attacked by suggesting that people like Francois “who are getting somewhat over-excited” should perhaps “don a yellow jacket and go outside”.

The Chief Whip, Julian Smith, was on his knee talking to the Prime Minister. He appears to have lost some more of his hair. Perhaps he tore it out while trying to find a way through for her deal.

Stephen Doughty, one of the Labour supporters of the Grieve amendment, accused the Chief Whip of “feverishly briefing journalists in a calculated attempt to undermine” the Speaker’s judgment.

Andrea Leadsom, the Leader of the House and no friend of Bercow, suggested he should publish the advice he received from the Commons clerks. For the general view on the Tory benches was that he had defied that advice.

Bercow naturally declined to do this. There were angry cries of “Publish it!” To describe the Tories as incandescent with rage would be no exaggeration. They feared the Speaker was betraying Brexit by bending the rules in order to allow the Remainers to take back control.

Iain Duncan Smith and others suggested that by allowing the Grieve amendment, Bercow had broken with precedent. The Speaker replied: “I understand the importance of precedent. But…if we were guided only by precedent…nothing in our procedure would ever change.”

He added that he was invariably determined “to stand up for the rights of the House of Commons”. Angela Eagle, from the Labour benches, crowed that “the House of Commons is taking back control”.

Labour and the Scots Nats loved seeing the Tories so confounded, and at times burst out clapping.

Andrew Percy, from the Tory benches, declared that “a procedural stitch-up” was taking place. Crispin Blunt said he was driven to the “uncomfortable conclusion” that among his Tory colleagues there was now “an unshakeable conviction that the referee of our affairs is no longer neutral”.

When the umpire is no longer regarded as neutral, it becomes difficult to accept his decisions as final.

Bercow declared: “I have always done my conscientious best.” There was an odd echo here of Tony Blair after the Iraq War, insisting he had always acted in good faith.

Adam Holloway asked in a fury about the pro-EU sticker in the Speaker’s car. Bercow retorted that the sticker “happens to be affixed to the windscreen of my wife’s car”, and he does not regard her as his chattel.

Perhaps it is a good thing to have all this fear of betrayal bursting out in the Chamber, for it reflects the fear of betrayal found in many a humble home. One cannot pretend it is edifying, but it is representative of the wider nation.

My apologies for filing this sketch late. The computer I was using in the press gallery, perhaps sensing the psychological disturbance sweeping through Westminster, suddenly and irrevocably stopped working.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Lidington is no Horatius

He defended the absent Prime Minister with decency and moderation, but neither Labour nor Conservative MPs were persuaded.

Then out spake spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate. Or this afternoon, out spake David Lidington, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

The Prime Minister was in Berlin, where she was reported to be having difficulty getting out of her car. Labour MPs were in Westminster, where they were having difficulty conveying how cross they were with the Prime Minister for pulling the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Yvette Cooper warned of  the danger of having “no vote on the deal and no vote on no deal”.  Nicky Morgan, from the Conservative benches, wanted “a categorical assurance that there will be no trickery by the Government”.

In the words of Hilary Benn, “What we learned yesterday was that today’s assurances can disappear tomorrow like a puff of wind.” Angela Eagle said the Prime Minister “has completely shredded her credibility”.

Angela Smith agreed that “the Government’s credibility is in shreds”, and added that “what we’re facing now is not a meaningful vote but a blackmail strategy”.

Thangam Debbonaire said “the Government is trying to hold a no deal Brexit gun to the country’s head”.

These trifling criticisms were fielded by Robin Walker, a junior Brexit minister, who said the meaningful vote would happen at latest on 21st January, but declined to be any more specific.

Jeremy Corbyn then opened for Labour in the emergency debate on the Government’s management of the meaningful vote.

He said Theresa May had “demeaned her office”, and accused her of “running away”. But Corbyn himself ran away from calling a vote of no confidence.

He too, it appears, is not all that keen on meaningful votes. When he accused the Prime Minister of “weak leadership”, one felt he knew of what he spoke.

Lidington rose to reply. He pointed out that in the last two months, the Prime Minister has spent “more than 22 hours at this Despatch Box”. He said that 21st January is “a deadline and not a target”, and added that “we need to push on with this sooner rather than later”.

But unlike Horatius, Lidington did not kill anyone. That is one reason why MPs like Lidington. He is not a killer.

And he treats his opponents with respect. “It’s a fair question,” as he told Benn. Lidington is admired for his decency and moderation.

All that roused Lidington to a flash of passion was the “fantasy” that one can have all the benefits of EU membership without its obligations. That thought annoyed him.

After he had spoken, the criticisms of the Prime Minister continued. Sir William Cash said she has “reached the point of no return” and “may well have to resign”. Morgan canvassed the idea of a government of national unity.

Horatius saved Rome. It does not look as if Lidington can save May.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May’s thin red lines grow thinner, yet she refuses to surrender

And her enemies are divided: can the No Dealers and the People’s Voters combine to defeat her?

“Hard pounding this, gentlemen,” one of Theresa May’s predecessors once said. “Let us see who can pound longest.”

That was the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, and the same grim spectacle is now unfolding in parliamentary form, as befits a great constitutional struggle with an uncertain outcome.

What a bombardment the Prime Minister endured, and as Jacob Rees-Mogg observed, this is the third time in ten days she has done so.

No wonder the combatants look grimmer and more strained than they did at the outset of the battle. It has developed into a war of attrition, in which the Prime Minister is said by expert judges to lack the numbers to prevail, yet in which she refuses to admit defeat.

May’s thin red lines grow thinner, indeed have faded, many of her adversaries would say, into shades of pink so faint they have become indistinguishable from the white flag of surrender which they confidently expect to see raised.

Yet May will not surrender. She continues to proclaim that hers is the only strategy which will work: “I can say to the House with absolute certainty that there is not a better deal available.”

Jeremy Corbyn observed, with some justice, that “the silence from most of the rest of the Cabinet is telling”. It is far from clear that her colleagues are standing shoulder to shoulder with her.

And what a weight of former Cabinet ministers opposed her from her own benches, Iain Duncan Smith, David Davis, Boris Johnson, John Redwood, Michael Fallon and Owen Paterson among them.

But although these are heavy guns to face, none of them seemed, at least to this observer, to score a direct hit. When the debris fell back to earth and the smoke cleared, there she still was, still insisting on her compromise, even though, as Fallon objected, it is a “huge gamble” which guarantees no one what they want.

“In the Prime Minister’s lexicon,” Angela Eagle (Lab, Wallasey) asked, “is smooth and orderly the new strong and stable?”

That shot landed, for as the nation saw during the general election, May is useless at responding to attacks on her addiction to pitifully banal forms of words.

But this is not a general election, and in the present campaign she has the strength of her weakness, which is that her banalities may start to drive her critics to distraction. Mark Francois, deputy chairman of the European Reform Group, warned that the Spanish are after Gibraltar and the French are after our fish, and asserted that May’s deal “will never get through, and even if it did, which it won’t…”

In other words, neither he nor anyone else knows for certain whether she will get her proposed deal through the Commons. It looks bad for her at the moment, and her own supporters this afternoon seemed glummer than they did.

But the great and minor guns which opened up against her were far from united. Can the No Dealers make common cause with the People’s Voters (who incidentally are starting to become insufferably tedious in their own special way) so as to defeat the Prime Minister, or when it comes to it on 11th December, will they be too frightened of playing into each other’s hands?

“Two more weeks of this,” one of my colleagues in the Commons press gallery groaned. Hard pounding, and we shall see who can pound longest.