Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: The odd couple, May and Corbyn, pretend nothing has changed

But their deputies look stricken, while the defectors are rejuvenated.

What an odd couple Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are. To look at them today, one would be hard put to say anything has changed.

There at the far end of the Chamber, behind the Scots Nats, sat eleven of their MPs who have just defected. The three former Tories, Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen, were greeted with great good humour by the eight former Labour MPs.

They looked alive, relieved and rejuvenated, as people do who at long last have found the courage to be true to themselves, before they discover their new situation contains at least as many vexations as their old one did.

And there facing each other across the Despatch Box were the odd couple, looking unrejuvenated, unresponsive and unrepentant. Corbyn if anything looked more tired than usual, and more inclined to stumble over his script, with unfamiliar words such as “mysogynistic” causing him trouble.

May looks dreadfully tired compared to when she became leader, but no tireder than she did last week. And she recited her script, all about her deal being the only way to avoid no deal, as fluently and uninspiringly as ever.

But who was that sitting beside Corbyn? It was Emily Thornberry, who usually appears quite cheerful, today with a stricken look. To judge by her expression, the Labour Party is in deep trouble, with more defections to come.

And who was that sitting beside May? David Lidington, who possesses a naturally buoyant demeanour, but today was sunk in gloomy thoughts. To judge by his expression, the Government is in deep trouble, with no acceptable deal in sight.

Ian Blackford, for the Scots Nats, declared: “Westminster is broken…this place is at war with itself…the Conservatives and Labour are imploding.”

And there were the odd couple, carrying on with business as usual. When one of them goes, the position of the other will become untenable. If I were the Prime Minister, I would be worried by Corbyn’s declining vitality.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May bores for Brexit, and has hopes of dividing and ruling

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.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Can it be that Corbyn thinks a “coup de grace” is some kind of fancy ice cream?

Instead of pressing home the attack on the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition helped her regain her composure.

Maybe Jeremy Corbyn thinks a “coup de grace” is an exotic ice cream, which true socialists should not administer.

The Government is reeling from its defeats last night on Brexit, one of which, on the contempt motion, was inflicted by his colleague Sir Keir Starmer.

Does the Leader of the Opposition seek to follow up these successes by harrying the discombobulated Prime Minister? Does he recognise that this is an extraordinary week, when her parliamentary weakness has been exposed in the most humiliating way?

Does he ridicule her in front of her own backbenchers, and make them embarrassed to support her? Does he seek to avert the danger that she could yet turn her weaknesses into a strength?

Of course not. Corbyn loyally avoids the whole subject. He offers her a rest from Brexit, a chance to regain her composure. It is hard not to conclude that he is trying to prop the Prime Minister up.

Attacks on her could, of course, misfire, and prompt her own troops to rally round and defend her. But Corbyn’s duty is to find some way of demonstrating that she has become indefensible.

Instead he talked about Universal Credit. That is a worthy subject, but also, just now, a culpable evasion of the great issues which confront not just the Conservative Party but the nation.

As a result of Corbyn’s dereliction of duty, Prime Minister’s Questions was a complete anti-climax. Corbyn paraded his virtuous concern about poverty, and various other MPs paraded their virtuous concern about various other issues.

Politics in these circumstances becomes a barren series of postures. The House was boisterous, but Corbyn gave it nothing to be boisterous about.

Ian Blackford, for the Scottish Nationalists, suggested “the Prime Minister has been misleading the House inadvertently or otherwise”, was ordered by the Speaker to rephrase this in order to avoid any  “imputation of dishonour”, and did not really get any further.

But Blackford is only allowed two questions, and is not auditioning to be the next Prime Minister.

Perhaps Corbyn, who each week manages to waste six questions, fears May might be replaced by someone who shows him up as  a third-rate parliamentarian.