The laughter began as the Prime Minister got half-way through her third sentence. “I’ve listened very carefully to what has been said in this Chamber,” she said, and a roar of derision went up from the Opposition benches.
It was the sort of applause some ridiculous figure in a pantomime might receive. And the unhappy fact was that the Prime Minister did look ridiculous.
Having led the way forward to the meaningful vote wlth every appearance of confidence, and sent her ministers out this morning to assure the world that the Government was still marching forwards, here she was announcing that she was instead leading the way back to Brussels, in search of further “assurances”.
Sir Oliver Letwin (Con, West Dorset) praised “the dignity and perseverance” she has shown, and many sympathetic looks were directed at her amid the mockery she endured.
But the truth was that her position was utterly undignified, for she had realised at the eleventh hour that she could not persevere, because the Commons will not accept her deal.
So she had to exercise that most difficult and inadvisable manoeuvre, a retreat in full view of the enemy, with a hail of misslles raining down on her from every direction.
She tried one of her favourite double negatives, to which she has so often resorted in recent weeks: “There is no deal available that does not include the backstop.” And she insisted the challenge of the Northern Ireland border must be met “not with rhetoric” – a plain hit at the more flowery speakers among the Eurosceptics on her own benches – “but with real and workable solutions”.
But her own solution has just been shown to be unworkable. Theresa May did not have a leg to stand on, and the House could see she did not have a leg to stand on, and the more she tried to insist she did have a leg to stand on, the more she sounded like a straight actor who is currently appearing in a Christmas pantomime, in order to become the butt of everyone else’s jokes.
The Chief Whip, Julian Smith, entered the Chamber a few minutes late, looking like a mourner at a funeral who has encountered unexpected delays on the way to the church.
There was a tremor in the Prime Minister’s voice as she spoke one of her favourite clichés, “I am clear”, but she kept bravely on. One suspects it is kindness, as shown by that very perfect gentle knight Sir Oliver, which would come closest to reducing her to tears.
Bravely but unconvincingly she insisted that hers is “the very best deal that is actually negotiable with the EU” – the quintessence of the Establishment view, but the Establishment is losing control.
“Does the House want to deliver Brexit?” she demanded. “No!” the Scots Nats shouted.
And quite a lot of MPs on both sides of the House agree with the Nats. Numerous pleas were made for a second referendum as a means of wriggling out of Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn said “the Government has lost control of events and is in complete disarray”. Things have come to a pretty pass when one finds oneself agreeing with him.
He told her that if she is just going to bring back “the same botched deal” then “she must give way”.
The Speaker, John Bercow, inflicted the torment on her of a lecture about manners. He said that to kill off the debate after no fewer than 164 MPs had spoken was “deeply discourteous”, and lectured her about how she should proceed.
The Prime Minister looked like a deeply upset yet inwardly recalcitrant schoolgirl, who feels herself unjustly accused of breaking the school rules. The Chief Whip lent over and said something to her. It appeared he was rejecting the Speaker’s advice.
Vince Cable, for the Liberal Democrats, said that “after the fiasco today the Government has really lost all authority”, and his party would support a No Confidence motion.
Nigel Dodds, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Unionists, looking white with anger, observed that “this is an impossible position”, and asked: “Does she not get it by now?”
There was altogether a feeling, even among MPs less averse to compromise than Dodds, that May has exhausted everyone’s patience.
The veteran Labour Eurosceptic Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover), traditionally known as the Beast of Bolsover, pointed out with a snarl that Brussels will see she is “very weak” and will humiliate her, in order to set a terrifying example to other countries which might feel tempted to leave the EU.
David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, asked whether she was going to get “legally enforceable” guarantees about the backstop. He did not get a reply, for legally enforceable guarantees are virtually impossible to obtain from the EU.
Jess Phillips (Lab, Birmingham Yardley) mocked Conservative Eurosceptics “who like to go around calling themselves Aslan”, and contended that whatever May might obtain in Brussels will “make absolutely no difference to these people”. And on that, one suspects, Phillips is right. It is hard to see how May can now satisfy anyone.