The Guardian view on the re­turn of PMQs: a mi­cro­cosm of what’s wrong

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion / The Guardian View - Ed­i­to­rial

Try to imag­ine, just for a mo­ment, that you are Iain Dun­can Smith. Imag­ine too, if you can, that you are sit­ting in Mr Dun­can Smith’s place on the Con­ser­va­tive back­benches dur­ing prime min­is­ter’s ques­tions on Wed­nes­day. When you were a min­is­ter, you were the au­thor and mid­wife of uni­ver­sal credit, the coali­tion gov­ern­ment’s “big idea” for rolling up six ben­e­fits into one monthly credit. The re­form is your great legacy. Few changes in modern times are more um­bil­i­cally as­so­ci­ated with a sin­gle politi­cian than this.

On Wed­nes­day, as you sit in the first PMQs since the party con­fer­ences, uni­ver­sal credit is com­ing un­der sus­tained at­tack from Jeremy Cor­byn. The Labour leader de­votes all his ques­tions to the is­sue. He tells Theresa May that some claimants are wait­ing more than six weeks for any pay­ments and are be­ing charged 55p a minute to call the helpline that is sup­posed to get things sorted. Mrs May tries to brush the Labour leader’s at­tacks away. Then one of your own Tory col­leagues, Heidi Allen, sit­ting right be­hind you, adds to the pres­sure by echo­ing Mr Cor­byn, say­ing the six-week de­lay just doesn’t work.

You your­self are keen to make your point. You try to catch the Speaker’s eye and, a few min­utes later, he calls your name: “Mr Iain Dun­can Smith.” Here is your chance. It is ob­vi­ous what you are go­ing to say. This is your is­sue. So you de­fend your uni­ver­sal credit sys­tem and you help your Tory prime min­is­ter. Don’t you?

Not if you are Mr Dun­can Smith you don’t. The for­mer Tory leader spoke. But he ig­nored both uni­ver­sal credit and Mrs May’s plight. In­stead, he asked for an as­sur­ance that “all mon­eys nec­es­sary” would be spent on plan­ning for the pos­si­bil­ity of a “no deal” Brexit in 2019. Mrs May, who seemed to have been fore­warned of his re­quest, promptly gave Mr Dun­can Smith ev­ery­thing that he wanted. She ended her an­swer: “Where money needs to be spent, it will be spent.”

As a mi­cro­cosm of what is so de­struc­tive about the Tory party, its gov­ern­ment, and the cur­rent state of Bri­tish pol­i­tics, this takes some beat­ing. It was, first, a re­veal­ing choice of pri­or­i­ties, a re­minder that hard Brexit ul­ti­mately mat­ters more to MPs like Mr Dun­can Smith than the needs of the poor. Sec­ond, it showed that Mrs May will find money to pla­cate Brex­i­teers over their lat­est griev­ance but not for claimants with daily real-life needs. Third, it was spec­tac­u­larly elo­quent of the fact that, in her ap­proach to Brexit, Mrs May puts keep­ing the Tory party to­gether above do­ing what is in the best in­ter­ests of the Bri­tish econ­omy and of peo­ple’s jobs.

It re­mains, per­haps, the­o­ret­i­cally pos­si­ble that Mrs May is en­gaged in an au­da­cious long-term de­cep­tion of

peo­ple like Mr Dun­can Smith and that, at some point in the Brexit process, she will say that an exit in which the UK con­tin­ues to deal with the cus­toms union and the sin­gle mar­ket on broadly EU terms is the best and only deal she can rec­om­mend. But the chance of this kind of out­come was al­ready van­ish­ingly small, and just got a lit­tle bit smaller. Ex­changes like the one with Mr Dun­can Smith show that a much graver dan­ger is that hard­line Brex­i­teers are suc­cess­fully push­ing Mrs May to­wards the cliff edge. She con­tin­ues to say she wants the ne­go­ti­a­tions with the EU to suc­ceed. But Mr Dun­can Smith and his al­lies sim­ply do not.

Mrs May is not a Brexit fa­natic, as they are. This was pow­er­fully un­der­scored this week when she re­fused to say which way she would vote if there was a sec­ond EU ref­er­en­dum. Her boil­er­plate ex­pla­na­tion is that there will not be a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum so the ques­tion does not arise. But her hon­esty – in the sense that she re­fused to tell a lie by pre­tend­ing that leav­ing the EU is bet­ter than stay­ing would have been – re­veals a mas­sive truth. Mrs May sees her role in his­tory as be­ing to make the best of a bad job. Damian Green was even more frank about that this week. But Brexit re­mains a bad job, how­ever well (or not) Mrs May and her min­is­ters man­age to nav­i­gate the con­se­quences.

Iain Dun­can Smith at prime min­is­ter’s ques­tions. ‘The for­mer Tory leader spoke. But he ig­nored both uni­ver­sal credit and Mrs May’s plight. In­stead, he asked for an as­sur­ance that “all mon­eys nec­es­sary” would be spent on plan­ning for the pos­si­bil­ity of...

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