Loathing of Corbyn now the only thing that unites Tories
Labour leader’s attacks on floundering May blunted by his own Brexit evasions
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn during prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons. Photograph: Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images
For most of the debate on Labour’s motion of no confidence in the British government, the green benches were largely empty as backbenchers delivered dull, predictable speeches. There was a moment of excitement halfway through when John Woodcock, a former Labour MP who now sits as an Independent, said he would not support the motion because he believed Jeremy Corbyn was unfit for office.
The Labour leader opened the debate with a catalogue of Theresa May’s government’s failings, from Brexit to child poverty, education and health. But his attack was blunted by his failure to answer questions about Labour’s Brexit policy – notably on whether the party would campaign in favour of Brexit or against it in the election he was hoping to trigger.
And the very thought of a Corbyn government was enough to remind Conservatives that there was one person in the Commons chamber they disliked more than they loathed one another.
“The leader of the opposition is making some powerful arguments – not very well, but he is making them – but could he help us with this?” said anti-Brexit Conservative Anna Soubry.
“I saw an opinion poll at the weekend. If there is any merit in his arguments, can he explain why the Conservative Party is six points ahead in the polls? Could it be because he is the most hopeless leader of the opposition we have ever had?”
The prime minister listed what she saw as her government’s achievements before moving on to the safer territory of attacking Corbyn’s character. But she too faced difficult questions over Brexit, particularly over her resistance to abandoning any of her red lines as she sought to find a proposal that MPs could unite behind.
Earlier, during prime minister’s questions, former Conservative chancellor Ken Clarke told her that the debate on her Brexit deal had revealed the shape of a potential majority.
“It seemed to me that the only clear majorities in this House on a cross-party basis are against leaving with no deal; in favour of extending article 50 to give us time to sort out what we now propose to do; and in favour of some form of customs union and sufficient regulatory alignment to keep all our borders between the United Kingdom and the European Union open after we leave,” he said.
“Will the prime minister not accept, just as I have had to accept that the majority in this House is committed to the UK leaving the European Union, that she must now modify her red lines, which she created for herself at Lancaster House, and find a cross-party majority, which will be along the lines that I have indicated?”
Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, wound up the debate for his party and he made the case against the prime minister more effectively than Corbyn had. He said he did not question her motives and believed she was driven by a sense of public duty.
“I do not doubt that she has sincerely attempted to fulfil the task given to us by the voters in this referendum. I have no doubt too that she has tried her best and given it her all. But she has failed, and I am afraid the failure is hers and hers alone. I am certain that every member of this House admires her resilience. To suffer the humiliations on a global stage that she has done would have finished off weaker people far sooner. Yet the reality is that, if the prime minister really sat down and thought carefully about the implications for our country of last night’s defeat, she would have resigned,” he said.
Environment secretary Michael Gove closed the debate for the government, and after a brisk recital of its achievements, he turned his fire on Corbyn. Gove was cruel, tendentious and unfair as he exaggerated and distorted the Labour leader’s record – and also quite brilliant, as the roars from the benches behind him attested.
The government defeated the motion by 19 votes, but without the support of the DUP’s 10 votes it would have lost by one.
“The result of the motion of no confidence tonight illustrates the importance of the confidence-and-supply arrangement,” Nigel Dodds said with a sweet, only slightly menacing smile.