It’s a curious piece of symmetry .The least politically agile Prime Minister in living memory is confronted by a Leader of the Opposition who rivals her for sheer woodenness. Which is of course a slur on mahogany .
Never can a floundering Prime Minister have owed a greater debt of gratitude to a Leader of the Opposition than Mrs May did this evening to Jeremy Corbyn. Mrs May had just followed up the loss of the first meaningful vote by 230 – the biggest parliamentary defeat since Lord North lost America – by losing her second by a margin of 149. Mrs May has obviously got the trajectory going in the right direction. By meaningful vote four or five she should get there. It’s a relief for the entire country that there is a deadline that rules that out because left to her own devices you just know she would carry on.
So Mrs May was absolutely on her beam ends when Jeremy Corbyn rose to speak. He met the occasion with all the oratory and presence of a hamster . Charlie Elphick MP must have been delighted . It had been reported earlier in the day that at the 1922 committee he had expressed his “satisfaction with the hamster”. I prefer not to enquire too deeply but evidently it had something to do with rabbits and hats.
The stage was set for Mr Corbyn as he rose to his feet. It is a curious irony that at a time that people have never been more disillusioned with politicians, that our politics has reached a pitch of drama that draws in huge interest accompanied by a sense of overwhelming despair.
This was a moment to seize the nation’s interest. The Prime Minister had just suffered an almost unparalleled humiliation largely at the hands of her own party and in particular from the Brexiteer zealots of the self styled European Research Group – which is to European research what the Ku Klux Klan is the civil rights – to whom she had dedicated months of effort in trying to pacify. The nation needed to hear a message of clarity and hope. Which charted a way out of our current predicament. And comforted people by creating a sense of confident mastery of events without gratuitously putting the boot into the forlorn figure of Mrs May.
The way to do that was to empathise. To bury her in kindness and thus complete her humiliation while appearing to be gracious. Something like this:
We stand in the midst of crisis. This is not a time to be dwelling on the fact that the Prime Minister has just suffered a second catastrophic defeat . I will not score cheap political points by observing that she is the author of her own misfortune and has neglected the opportunity to reach across these benches in a spirit of consensus.
Everyone can see the Prime Minister has worked tirelessly in what she sees as the national interest. No one should doubt that when she speaks of her commitment to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland her words are genuine.Her failing is not in her analysis of what should be done but in her inability to find the policy mechanisms to put it into practice. We can all see that she has put her heart and soul into doing what she believes is best. And she has done so at great cost to herself as we can see and hear tonight- quite literally.
In fact I have a degree of empathy for the Prime Minister. While I might wish she had chosen another course she has been assiduous in listening to those who purport to be on her side, I’m referring of course to those who style themselves the European Research Group – whose only interest in Europe is leaving it and the only research, I use the term in its loosest possible sense, in which they’ve ever been interested is that which appears to justify their bigotry against Europe- and I refer also to the DUP who are well known for their individual and collective capability to secure financial benefit , an aspect of their administration at Stormont which is currently the subject of an enquiry.
Of course those of us who are not members of the DUP , apart from the honourable member for Vauxhall, find it enormously difficult to understand whose interests the DUP are actually representing as they are clearly not acting in the interests of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland as we saw in the poll the Irish Times published this weekend.
Turning to the ERG – as fellow politicians we might accord them some grudging respect for the message discipline they exert through their WhatsApp group . But in terms of their impact on our politics it has been entirely negative. Negative in its impact on our country and – forgive me Prime Minister if I for a moment appear to intrude on private grief – on the party opposite. Ironically they have even managed to have a negative impact upon the objective they purport to care about most: Brexit.
So I have some empathy for the Prime Minister because at every stage she has been slavish in seeking to follow the bidding of the ERG and the DUP. But however hard she strove, whatever she did she could never find a way of satisfying them . Whatever she did it was always it seemed the wrong kind of Brexit . Not pure enough. Not clean enough.
And when she brought reality to bear- which I have to say was a good deal less frequently than I would have wished, but nonetheless, there were moments when she did – her reward was to be denounced as having been supine . She was even accused by a former Brexit Secretary of not having been robust enough with the EU.
Against this background it is no surprise Mr Speaker that it has ended like this. The only surprise is that the Prime Minister has struggled on for so long in the face of overwhelming adversity that is constituted by a large part of her own party
So she has my empathy. But she does not have my support for her wretched deal. What she and this House do have is my firm commitment, on behalf of our country, that this party will never let those opposite impose upon us the horrors of crashing out with no deal. And tomorrow we are ready to join with all those on the benches opposite who share our commitment to do the right thing to put the future of our country first and bring to an end the nightmare inflicted upon us by the ERG and DUP