The Prime Minister assured Labour MPs that she will stand up for workers’ rights.
The Prime Minister’s demeanour, during her frequent statements to the House on Brexit, is that of a teacher who refuses to make her lessons any less repetitive.
Some of us cannot help feeling a reluctant admiration for Theresa May’s pedagogical methods. Her willingness, despite signs of restiveness in the Brexit Studies class, to stick to tried and tested clichés commands our involuntary respect.
If she has said it once that if you do not want no deal you must vote for her deal, she has said it a million times. That is how rote learning works. Here is a leader who is prepared to bore for Brexit.
And yet behind her impermeable facade of double negatives, change can be detected, and even an understanding that she needs to make what she is offering less repugnant.
So today she told Jeremy Corbyn, “I welcome his willingness to sit down and talk with me.” And she went on to suggest that she and the Leader of the Opposition are united in their determination “not to allow any lowering of standards in workers’ rights” when we leave the EU.
Corbyn leant over to consult Sir Keir Starmer, the Shadow Brexit Secretary. Perhaps he wished for advice on how to deal with this implausible claim, or perhaps he just wanted to check what Labour policy is.
May meanwhile suggested that under the Conservatives, “the UK has a proud tradition of leading the way in workers’ rights”.
This led to an outbreak of hilarity among the Opposition. Chi Onwurah, sitting on the bench behind Corbyn, laughed with particular delight. May had said something so absurd – that the Conservatives are the workers’ friend – it was impossible for Labour not to burst out laughing.
The Prime Minister proceeded to say, less humorously, that “we now need some time” to complete the Brexit negotiations, and “we now all need to hold our nerve”.
Corbyn said he had only received the prior copy of her statement to which he is entitled as he left his office: “I can only assume she entrusted it to the Transport Secretary to deliver.”
That joke went down well. Corbyn proceeded to accuse her of “more excuses and more delays” while she runs down the clock, “plays chicken with people’s livelihoods”, engages in “the pretence of working with Parliament”, and claims to care about workers’ rights, although for many Conservatives, “ripping up workers’ rights is what Brexit is all about.”
Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, was ruder. He said the Prime Minister’s deal is “a fraud”, and “a catastrophe for Scotland”, and called on her to “put an end to this economic madness” under which the Scots are being “dragged out of the EU against our will”.
As May began, in a somewhat patronising tone, to correct these assertions, Blackford could be heard shouting “that’s not true”, and then “liar”. The Speaker, John Bercow, made him withdraw the word.
Vince Cable, for the Liberal Democrats, said that after reaching out to the trade unions and to Corbyn, May was “no doubt better informed on how Trotsky might have dealt with the Brexit crisis”.
So the Opposition are divided into Trotskyites and anti-Trotskyites. For May, this is promising. She has no need to plunge an ice pick into the back of Corbyn’s head. She can just hope to separate some of his MPs from him by indicating that she is in a better position than he is to produce economic benefits for the workers in their constituencies.
On her own benches, she got mixed reviews. Ken Clarke said we could do a better trade deal with Japan by remaining in the EU, and Anna Soubry accused her of “kicking the can down the road yet again”.
But Owen Paterson thought what she had said was “really encouraging”, and Sir Nicholas Soames declared: “Can I reassure the Prime Minister that I’m holding my nerve like anything.”
So the Prime Minister can still hope to bore her way through to an implausible victory. She remains, one might say, the only game in town, which is exactly what she set out to demonstrate when she stood up today.