Theresa May started and finished her first PMQs appearance of the new season with references to Labour’s antisemitism row, while Jeremy Corbyn spent all of his questions on Brexit.
The Labour leader, said May, should apologise for saying British Jewish people did not understand English irony. Corbyn said there was no place for racism in our society, and that included in the Conservative party.
He wanted to know the odds of a no-deal Brexit and asked who was right: Liam Fox, who said he was unfazed by the prospect of no deal; Jeremy Hunt, who said it would be a huge geopolitical mistake; or Philip Hammond, who said it would slash growth by 8%? May said she agreed with the WTO boss who said a no-deal Brexit would not be a walk in the park, but it would not be the end of the world.
How many firms had said they would relocate if there was no Brexit deal, asked Corbyn; May said businesses had shown confidence in the UK.
But, said Corbyn, despite the prime minister’s insistence that no deal was better than a bad deal, no deal was a bad deal. Everyone was telling her that. Chequers was dead. When would May publish a plan that survived contact with her cabinet and reality – two different concepts – he asked.
May said she wanted a deal that would work for the UK. What was Corbyn doing? Trying to change his party, she retorted, so that antisemites could call the creation of Israel racist. He should be ashamed of himself.
It’s hard to recall now that there was a time when Jeremy Corbyn avoided the topic of Brexit at PMQs at all costs. Today he devoted all six questions to it. He made it look easy and he won quite comfortably.
It is not hard to see why: you could probably use the number of Brexit questions Corbyn asks each month as a reliable index for the success of the Brexit talks, and Corbyn was good today because he neatly highlighted the very real concerns that Theresa May’s strategy, and her decision to bet her administration on a plan rejected by much of her party and the EU, is driving the UK towards a no-deal Brexit. His questions weren’t flashy or profound, but they were effective.
He used contrasting quotes to highlight cabinet divisions on this issue, he gently mocked Dominic Raab’s claim that a no-deal Brexit would have certain advantages (so does death, I suppose, or the bubonic plague) and, quoting people as diverse as the NFU and Mervyn King, he articulated the genuine concerns about what would happen if the UK left the EU without a deal.
On another day, May’s counter-thrust on antisemitism might have resonated, but today it just felt irrelevant. And, with the chances of a no-deal Brexit increasing, her attempt to weaponise the second referendum argument did not work either. Corbyn is still officially sceptical about a second referendum, but the questions he asked went some way to justify his decision not to indulge May by ruling one out.