It was widely expected that PMQs would be particularly interesting today. There is high drama in Westminster, after all: three MPs quit the Conservative Party to join “The Independent Group” this morning, adding to its band of eight ex-Labour MPs. But the only news-y thing about the latest PMQs session was the remarkable sight of Heidi Allen, Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston taking their places on the opposition benches. Sitting beside the seven original splitters and Joan Ryan, they looked delighted to be there.
The opportunity to talk about defections was largely rebuffed by Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May, and it was left to the SNP’s Ian Blackford to raise the matter. He told the Commons that British politics is “imploding” and “Scotland deserves better”. Pressing her ear to a speaker in the Commons bench, May cackled.
The Prime Minister and Chipping Barnet backbencher Theresa Villiers had agreed early on in the session to respond to the main news of the day by condemning Labour’s handling of antisemitism. Their attack was supported by quotes from the resignation letter of Labour Friends of Israel chair Joan Ryan. When Corbyn replied that his party “takes the strongest action to deal with antisemitism wherever it rears its head”, members on the Tory benches heckled and one shouted “rubbish!”.
The Labour leader moved swiftly on to Brexit – and why wouldn’t he? While the headlines are dominated by the news of MPs splitting off from the main parties, the ‘no deal’ outcome feared by a majority of parliamentarians is just around the corner. Labour antisemitism still features heavily in reports on the new Commons grouping, but what really unites them is a strong opposition to Brexit and an advocacy of a fresh EU referendum. They must have been just as keen to hear about May’s next steps as Corbyn.
As usual, though, May offered no illuminating answers. Asked whether she was seeking to remove the backstop, make it time-limited or give the UK the right to exit unilaterally, the PM simply replied that there are “a number of ways” to address the backstop issue. Then she refused to rule out ‘no deal’. Then she declined to comment on customs union membership. We’ve seen this exchange before, more than once, but now 29th March is just over a month away. The Westminster bubble is full of excitement as Labour and the Tories splinter, yet Brexit is no clearer.