Steve Barclay, the new Brexit Secretary, seemed a bit self-conscious as he sat waiting on the front bench for the first PMQs since his promotion to the Cabinet. Philip Hammond appeared to be explaining something to him at inordinate length, and all Barclay could do was to listen with respect, whether or not he agreed with a word the Chancellor was saying.
Jeremy Corbyn wondered if the post of Brexit Secretary “is now an entirely ceremonial one”. If so, perhaps one of his most onerous duties is to listen with respect to the Chancellor.
For most of PMQs, the Prime Minister looked quite at ease. She has seen off the rebels on her own benches, at least for how.
And she knows she has a far stronger grasp of the details of her Brexit detail than Corbyn has acquired, or is capable of acquiring, and this superiority she missed no opportunity to emphasise.
When she declared, in a triumphant tone, “He hasn’t even read it – he doesn’t know what’s in it,” she sounded faintly reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher..
In words plainly aimed at her own backbenchers, the Prime Minister told the Leader of the Opposition that voting down her deal “could risk no Brexit at all”.
Nor did she seem particularly disturbed when Andrew Rosindell (Con, Romford) told her the people of Romford “are deeply unhappy with the Brexit deal” and called on her to “please think again” and find a way of “cutting away the tentacles of the EU over our cherished island nation once and for all”.
Neil Parish (Con, Tiverton) did not appear to render her unduly downcast when he said the deal is “not good enough as it stands…my farming instincts tell me you do not hand over 39 billion before you get the deal”.
May’s demeanour was still that of someone who thinks she can sell her deal to most of her own backbenchers, by persuading them that anything else would be worse.
George Freeman (Con, Mid Norfolk) asked about the Northern Ireland backstop: “Can the Prime Minister reassure me and seek reassurance in Brussels today that this draft doesn’t contain a trap that, if we dare to diverge [from single market regulations], we undermine our Union?”
The Prime Minister explained at some length that we can ensure the backstop is temporary, and again, she sounded as if she had at least satisfied herself that the deal is fine, and that she can win others to that view.
But at almost the end of PMQs, Nigel Dodds, parliamentary leader of the DUP, rose and said:
“In the December joint report agreed between the European Union and the United Kingdom it was agreed that Northern Ireland would have the final say on whether or not it diverged from the UK single market and was subjected to single market European rules with no say. Why has the Prime Minister deleted all reference to that in the withdrawal agreement?
“Did she push the delete button?”
For the first time, Mrs May sounded rattled. She said he was “absolutely right” about the December report, but went on: “The December joint report referred to a decision being taken by the Northern Ireland Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly which sadly we do not have in place today.”
This. she knew, was an answer which could not possibly satisfy Dodds. He shook his head and raised his hands in a “What can you do?” gesture.
Unlike the anxious Tory backbenchers, most of whom would like if they possibly can to allow themselves to be talked round by the Prime Minister, Dodds looks and sounds as if he intends to push the delete button on her.