It was “Be nice to Chris Grayling” day. And Theresa May’s contribution was to express solidarity with her transport secretary by proving she was every bit as out of her depth as he is. Hopeless, indecisive and confused barely covers it.
On days like these, cabinet meetings must resemble a convention of zombies fighting over the only functioning brain cell in the room. The best that can be said about it is that at least it is giving the rest of the world a laugh. It’s just a shame for those of us stuck in the UK who have to live with it.
Prime minister’s questions is turning into a breeze for Jeremy Corbyn. Where previously he used to overthink things – admittedly not hard in his case – and tie himself up in knots with his own logic, he now just stands up and says, “how’s it going?”
As even May is just about sentient enough to realise that “badly” won’t quite cut it, she has no answer. Because she genuinely doesn’t know. There is no area of government policy over which she has a firm grasp. Least of all Brexit.
The Labour leader bounced to his feet and demanded to know if the government was going to publish the long-delayed white paper on its negotiating position before the Commons voted on the Lords amendments to the Brexit withdrawal bill next Tuesday. As it might be quite handy. If not essential to anyone hoping to make an informed decision.
May’s eyes rotated in opposite directions and her mouth opened and shut as if gasping for breath while struggling for words. “I agree that we want to publish a white paper,” she croaked eventually. The snag was that no one in the cabinet could agree on what should go in it. Or when it should be published. The white paper remained defiantly white.
“OK,” said Corbyn, generously choosing to give her another chance. If she wasn’t going to publish the white paper before next Tuesday could she at least promise to do so before the European council meeting? She couldn’t. It was far better that our negotiators were kept entirely in the dark. If they didn’t know what the government’s position was there was no chance of Johnny Foreigner second-guessing and outmanoeuvring us.
That was the highpoint of the exchanges. May didn’t even know if the Brexit sub-subcommittees on maximum facilitation and the customs partnership had even met, let alone reached any conclusions. She couldn’t explain how her 10-mile buffer zone on the Irish border was going to work. There again, no one can as it’s a completely idiotic idea.
In desperation May went to her default PMQs algorithm and demanded that Labour come up with solutions of their own. If he had had any, Corbyn might have been tempted to list them. But he didn’t, so he merely pointed out that it wasn’t the opposition doing the Brexit negotiations, before adding that the government didn’t appear to think it was its job to conduct the negotiations either.
By now the Tory benches were almost entirely silent. There was a time, when May first became prime minister, that they thought her evasiveness and general air of uselessness was a sophisticated act. A means of luring opponents into a false sense of security. That moment has long passed and Conservative backbenchers have come to realise that behind her veneer of incompetence are only deeper and deeper layers of incompetence. Futility piled on futility.
Corbyn ended by comparing the chaos of Brexit to the train wreck of the railways. At the mention of the word railways, Chris Grayling, who had spent PMQs in the recovery position near the speaker’s chair, jerked into life, his eyes full of terror. He just about managed to control the spasms in his neck but his head wobbled rhythmically. Failing Grayling isn’t in a good way and it would be a kindness if he was kept out of sight for a while. A kindness both to the country as well as him.
With the prime minister now unable to remember her own name or what she was even doing in the chamber, the Tories’ Chris Davies tried to distract her by asking if she would be happy to sponsor a pigeon. “Yes,” she said. It was the only straight answer she gave all day. The unlucky pigeon was tearing its feathers out.