Westminster Whispers: The joke's on Brexit at PMQs

Westminster Whispers: The joke's on Brexit at PMQs

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

It was a back to school bonanza in the Commons this lunchtime as weekly PMQs punch-ups returned with a bonus urgent statement from the Prime Minister.

By the beginning of the session MPs knew the PM would be updating them with significant developments in the Salisbury investigation.

But there were genuine gasps in the chamber as a solemn-faced Theresa May revealed two Russian passport-holders accused of carrying out the attacks are agents of the GRU - Russia's military intelligence service.

Jeremy Corbyn's relatively strong PMQs performance was knocked off the headlines by the statement - which according to convention he had to respond to.

Corbyn reiterated his condemnation of the attacks but changed tone - praising the police and MI5 and throwing his support behind the government and its actions.

He had faced criticism earlier this year for adopting a 'wait and see' approach over apportioning blame for the incidents.

Mrs May alluded to that several times as she addressed a dead silent House - but she did not politicise her statement by mentioning him by name.


Labour support for a second referendum 'not ruled out'

PMQs itself was a full-on Brexit bonanza from Corbyn - he used all six of his questions in an attempt to exploit Cabinet splits on the issue. 

There was some good scrimmage as Corbyn highlighted seemingly contradictory statements from Liam Fox, Jeremy Hunt and Philip Hammond.

The Prime Minister parried by repeatedly asking Corbyn to rule out Labour support for a second referendum - again, he did not - to cheers from Tory backbenchers.


Boris Johnson 'loomed' on the backbenches

But her performance on Brexit was surely not enough to impress Boris Johnson, who was looming on the backbenches several rows back from the woman whose job he is said to crave.

He was surrounded by a gang of parliamentary allies - a new trouble spot for the PM on Wednesdays - but he did not try to catch the Speaker's eye and speak today. 

When he does, PMQs could serve as the most harshly-lit stage upon which to move against the PM in public.


Corbyn 'batted away' antisemitism comments

Watch: Lord Adonis tells Sam Delaney: "I don't believe a Labour government would do anything threatening to the Jewish community"

Earlier, May had fired an opening salvo on antisemitism, calling on Corbyn to apologise to the Jewish community - he did not. 

This provided some useful social media clips for the Tories - but Corbyn batted away the issue with surprising ease considering how dominant it has been this summer.

As is now customary from these exchanges, we came away feeling we had both learnt little and enjoyed little. 

The best moment was when Corbyn accused May of "dancing around" the issue of Brexit - a reference to the shapes she threw on her Africa trip. 

The line landed well with Labour MPs and Corbyn's spin doctors grinned in the gallery. 

But when a weak joke is the strongest line from an exchange on the biggest issue facing Britain - Brexit - all of a sudden it's somewhat less funny.