Theresa May’s de facto deputy David Lidington went up against Labour’s Emily Thornberry this afternoon, in the first Prime Minister’s Questions session after Easter recess. That short break was filled with climate change protests, particularly news of nonviolent direction actions by Extinction Rebellion, and then 16-year-old Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg’s visit to Westminster hit headlines this week. As the PM failed to turn up to a round table discussion with the young activist yesterday, the opposition might have been expected to capitalise on the current interest in environmental issues. Instead, Thornberry chose a more difficult path.
Thunberg argues that people aren’t willing to talk enough about global warming and ecocide, which is undeniably true. But it often seems as if most of the British public is even less willing to talk about Northern Ireland. As well as tributes to victims of the recent Sri Lanka attacks, PMQs started with acknowledgements of the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, whose funeral will be attended by May and Jeremy Corbyn at 1pm. Thornberry was well-placed to passionately condemn the ‘new IRA’, which has owned the killing in a statement that the Shadow Foreign Secretary called a “sickening throwback” to 20 years ago.
Then, carefully and with a somber tone, Thornberry linked the killing of McKee to the Northern Irish border problem that has plagued Brexit. We need to solve the border issue “rather than give evil terrorists the divisions that they crave”, she argued. In his response, Lidington was hesitant and clearly uncomfortable. It is well-known that ‘Mr Europe’ is more favourable to a customs union than some of his colleagues. Eventually, he said that he didn’t think the murderers in Derry were motivated by customs arrangements, which made for a somewhat facetious reply.
So followed the Brexit debate over membership of a UK-EU customs union that we’ve all now heard countless times. Thornberry later tapped into less complex themes when she condemned the state visit of Donald Trump, suggesting that perhaps he should be made to sit between Thunberg and the BBC’s David Attenborough and pointing out also that the trip is a “waste of money” as the US won’t agree a trade deal without a solution to the border problem. She was accused of raising issues due to leadership ambitions and of being in the “outer-inner circle” of the Labour leadership. But the frontbencher made no qualms about spelling out the bottom line: cross-party Brexit talks are going nowhere without government compromise on a customs union.