The House met in a very odd mood, a compound of excitement, mistrust, boredom and fear. At the start of today’s statement MPs felt themselves being driven down a road most of them do not like, towards (as they think) a cliff edge which will be reached on 29th March, by a Prime Minister who divulges information only on a need to know basis.
“I believe that if we have to we will ultimately make a success of No Deal,” Theresa May said, and by doing so provoked loud protests on the Labour benches, and silent apprehension on her own.
She observed that “members across the House are genuinely worried that time is running out”.
“Yes,” someone shouted.
The passengers are getting mutinous. They find themselves bowling along with a driver who denies that a cliff edge is coming up. Oliver Letwin and Yvette Cooper have therefore devised a plan for them to wrest control of the steering wheel from May.
The Prime Minister is not quite so impervious to danger as she looks. She saw that the only way to defuse this rebellion was to make a concession.
So she said that if the House voted against her revised deal, and against leaving on 29th March, the Government will on 14th March “bring forward a motion on whether Parliament wants to seek a short limited extension to Article 50”.
But she went on to say that this extension could produce “a much sharper cliff edge” in a few months’ time, and she was not, herself, in favour of making it.
The passengers doubted whether they could trust a word she said.
“They are commitments I am making as Prime Minister and I will stand by them,” May told them, producing cries of incredulity.
“My aim is to bring the country back together,” she added, provoking laughter.
She ended by accusing Jeremy Corbyn of going back on his promise to respect the referendum result. For Corbyn has announced, if not the U-turn which most of the passengers really want, at least the second referendum which they hope will give them the sanction to do a U-turn, provided they frame the choice in such a way as to produce the required answer.
Corbyn began by referring, without attribution, to Marx’s great observation, at the start of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, that historical events and people occur twice, first as tragedy, then as farce.
The Leader of the Opposition suggested May had now repeated herself so often she had become “grotesquely reckless”. He is not as good a writer as Marx.
Nor, as we have seen, was May repeating herself. She was saying something new. Corbyn, however, is always very reluctant to admit that anything has changed.
“Labour, Mr Speaker, has a credible plan,” he said, and now it was his turn to provoke incredulous laughter on the benches facing him, and silent apprehension on his own.
May spent two hours and nine minutes at the Despatch Box. Every MP who wanted to ask a question was able to do so. The Speaker is good at giving the House the chance to hold ministers to account.
But not much further light was cast on anything. Quite a few Conservative MPs said they will vote for the PM’s deal. The Tory tribe does not, generally speaking, wish to be seen to betray Brexit.
Caroline Flint (Labour, Don Valley) observed that there are people on both the Right and the Left for whom “no deal will ever be good enough”.
She added that these opponents of May’s deal need to be prepared to compromise. “I absolutely agree,” the Prime Minister replied. Gareth Snell (Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central) indicated that he too will vote for her deal.
She lives to fight another day. It is still possible that with a bit of help from Labour MPs, horrified that their leader has sold the pass on a second referendum, and from Conservative MPs who fear the cost of driving over the cliff, she will get a compromise.