Jeremy Corbyn is a better Leader of the Opposition than he was, but still does not sound like a Prime Minister in waiting. As he opened the No Confidence debate, he took the precaution of taking few interventions from other MPs.
But those interventions were still sufficient to demonstrate the utter nullity of his European policy. When Alistair Carmichael asked if Labour supports a second referendum, Corbyn could only say that “all options are on the table”.
He said the Prime Minister should keep all options on the table too, but proceeded to contradict himself by urging her to “rule out No Deal”.
Corbyn went on to allow an intervention from Anna Soubry (Con, Broxtowe). She pointed out that the Conservatives are six points ahead in the opinion polls, and wondered whether this could be because “he’s the most hopeless Leader of the Opposition we’ve ever had”.
Corbyn could have replied that her remark did not exactly constitute a declaration of confidence in the Prime Minister. He instead insisted, less ambitiously, that he looked forward to testing public opinion in a general election. But he admitted that many people think we have had quite enough elections and referendums in recent years to be going on with.
And he did not even sound very enthusiastic himself about the idea of an election. The longer he spoke, the less sense one had that he was convincing himself, let alone anyone else.
“Send for Corbyn” is not yet a message that leaps to people’s lips. In that sense, the whole occasion sounded rather bogus, an obligatory ritual rather than a genuine attempt to throw out the Government.
“Stick with May” is still a message the Tory benches are prepared to heed. But the Father of the House, Ken Clarke, had already told her at Prime Minister’s Questions, from his bench a few yards behind her: “She must now modify her red lines…and find a cross-party majority.”
Clarke nodded quietly when Angela Eagle and Yvette Cooper made the same point from the Labour benches.
This was difficult territory for the Prime Minister. She had to show she is prepared to listen to reasonable suggestions from across the House about Brexit, without making her own Eurosceptics fear she is about to outflank them by forming an alliance with Labour moderates.
Liam Byrne (Lab, Birmingham Hodge Hill) said she was imprisoned in “a cage of red lions”, which sounded a dangerous place to be, but it turned out that he had said “a cage of red lines”, which sounded a bit less bad.
May naturally flung at him the famous note he left in 2010 for his successor as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, “I’m afraid there is no money left.”
Byrne said in his own defence, “I was naive to honour a Treasury tradition that went back to Churchill.” By now, the heat was clearly off May. But it was also clear that no one, including herself, yet knows how to devise a Brexit policy which can command a Commons majority.