Week by week, the empty spaces on the green benches grow wider. Prime minister’s questions used to be a standing-room-only affair, but in the hands of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn it’s driving many MPs to an early lunch.
It’s not just that both party leaders are second-rate operators at the dispatch box – you can almost feel the sense of relief when one of them manages to successfully complete an intelligible sentence – it’s that they are both hell-bent on talking about anything other than what’s uppermost in the minds of almost everyone. May can’t answer any questions on Brexit because she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing. And Corbyn can’t ask any questions about Brexit for exactly the same reason.
So they both muddle along, filling the time as best they can and scoring points off each other here and there. To be fair to the Labour leader, it’s invariably him who is winning the skirmishes these days – largely because there’s hardly a part of the country that isn’t falling apart around the prime minister’s ears as she devotes all her attention to doing nothing about Brexit.
It’s even reached the point where Corbyn isn’t just winning on safe Labour ground, such as the NHS, he’s now also taking May apart on the traditional Tory heartlands of law and order. No wonder there are so many despairing faces on the government benches.
Corbyn kept all his questions short and sweet. Crime was going up and police numbers had gone down on the Tories’ watch: how did she feel about that? “Let me be clear,” said the prime minister. Someone really needs to reprogramme that algorithm. It’s become a tell-tale sign that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
May kept digging. Crime wasn’t really going up. What was happening was that police were now recording more crimes that they weren’t bothering to investigate as they didn’t have the resources. Then she panicked and ended by saying that however many people were getting stabbed right now, there would be even more being knifed under Labour because the country would be bankrupt. May sat down to near silence. It was the kindest response anyone could manage.
If Labour winning on policing wasn’t weird enough, things became positively surreal when the Conservative Philip Davies chipped in. Davies usually revels in his status as the most unreconstructed politician in parliament and frequently stands up to demand that minorities should quit moaning and give middle-aged white blokes like himself more of a chance, but now he made a passionate plea to restore the disability commissioner. Labour’s Dennis Skinner was so taken aback by this apostasy that he quite forgot he had always loathed everything to do with Tony Blair and went into an extended riff about the wonders of New Labour’s NHS achievements.
More normal service was resumed when the Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, asked for assurances that a free trade deal with the US wouldn’t extend to Trumpland buying up large sections of the NHS. May appeared so shocked to be asked a Brexit-related question that couldn’t be answered with the usual “deep and special relationship” nonsense that she promptly opened the door to flogging the entire NHS to the US. Global Britain, Open for Business. And being sold off to the highest bidder.
It took Labour’s Hilary Benn to mention the elephant in the room. Having ruled out being in the customs union, how did she propose to maintain a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic? At this, May seemed to snap. She opened her mouth but only magical realism came out. It would work out because she wanted it to work out. So there. Benn shook his head, as if in sorrow at the prime minister finally unravelling and losing the plot. Though that was being kind. It’s hard to lose something you never had.
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