Nothing beats the experience of seeing PMQs on the television, for then one can study the expressions of Theresa May’s colleagues on the front bench.
Disraeli in a famous passage in a speech delivered at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in April 1872 said of Gladstone’s Cabinet, in office for a bit over three years:
“As I sat opposite the Treasury Bench the ministers reminded me of one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coasts of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest. But the situation is still dangerous. There are occasional earthquakes, and ever and anon the dark rumbling of the sea.”
What is one to say of May’s Cabinet? Most of them look exhausted, but it is hard to imagine they were ever particularly volcanic. As they listened with despondent politeness to the clichés and evasions which poured, not quite as fluently but just as doggedly as usual, from their leader’s contorted mouth, one was reminded of a staff outing which everyone now bitterly regrets agreeing to go on, but no one can see a way of getting out of.
The most visible members of the party – there were others just out of shot – were David Mundell, David Lidington, Steve Barclay, Amber Rudd, Jeremy Hunt, Greg Clark, Penny Mordaunt and Sajid Javid.
Except for a moment or two when Hunt muttered a joke to Rudd, not a flame flickered on a single pallid crest. A weary glumness was the prevailing mood, with Mundell perhaps the unhappiest of them all.
Fortunately for May, Corbyn is no Disraeli. He plugged away, but gave her too much time to think, and buried his best lines in superfluous ones. He remarked that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who usually sits beside the Prime Minister, was not present, though many of the exchanges were about the gloomy forecasts just issued by the Treasury.
From the Conservative benches, no one really went for May. It is possible they felt they had overdone it when they attacked her on Monday, and were now ashamed of themselves for trying to bully her.
Can it be that the Tory tribe is slowly deciding, with intense and gloomy reluctance, that it can only survive by sticking together? “There is an exit from the backstop,” the Prime Minister was saying, “but we don’t want the backstop to be invoked in the first place,”
No one from her side of the House really took issue with her about that crucial question. Perhaps they are keeping their powder dry for the days of debate which will unfold before the so-called Meaningful Vote. But perhaps, just perhaps, they are starting to think that defenestrating her would be even worse than going on listening to her.